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What I Learned From Visiting With Cuba’s Jews

What I Learned From Visiting With Cuba’s Jews

Directional signs in Old Havana Cuba, including one to a synagogue

In early January, I joined 25 congregants, friends, and clergy on a Jewish mission to Cuba. Though I had done my homework, I was not prepared for what I would find there and how the experience would affect my self-perception as a Jew.

Our Cuban guide, a beautiful, well-dressed woman in her early 40s, spoke with pride about her country and the Revolution, which she said stood for progress. Cuba’s constitution, she explained, calls for an atheist society, not mentioning that in 1992 the constitution was changed to allow for religious freedom. She said churches and temples can continue their work, but citizens who declare themselves to be religious find it nearly impossible to get an education or jobs.

No one could tell us precisely how many Jews still live in Cuba. Our goal was to meet with five Jewish communities during the six days we were on the island.

Our first stop was the only Orthodox synagogue in Cuba, located in a rundown neighborhood of Old Havana. Though the buildings were in disrepair, their architecture bore witness to a prosperous past. Along the way, we walked past people lined up in front of long tables covered with baskets of food. Every citizen receives a meager monthly ration of rice, beans, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and a quarter of a chicken.

Behind a brightly-painted red metal gate, stood the synagogue, a white building with Hebrew letters inscribed above the doorway. We met with Rabbi Berezniak to learn about his small and elderly congregation. As the only Jewish officiant in this vanishing community, Rabbi Berezniak leads services, prepares bodies for burial, conducts funerals, butchers kosher meat, and, on rare occasions, serves as the mohel (performing brit milah, ritual circumcision). I was impressed by his dedication, but feeling sad that this congregation was nearing the end of its life. I got back on the bus feeling deflated.

Upon returning to our hotel, many of us tried without success to connect to the Internet at the same time. It was frustrating. I was dismayed to see how impatient we were. At dinnertime, I wasn’t hungry. Not wanting to waste food, I passed on the meal. At that moment, I felt privileged, spoiled, guilty.

The next day, we drove many hours to Santa Clara, where we met David Tacher, who represents the Jewish community there. We gathered in the multipurpose room of a small building, where sparse Hanukkah decorations were still on view.  As they have no rabbi, David leads Kabbalat Shabbat services twice a month. Hearing from him about the congregation’s challenges was depressing. To lighten things up, David invited us to sing with him. We took the Torah from the ark and raised our voices in song. Singing in harmony with this man, who so proudly loves Judaism, his community, and Torah inspired a sense of hopefulness.

We next traveled to Cienfuegos to meet Rebecca Langus, a petite woman in her 50s. Without the services of a rabbi, she has taken it upon herself to conduct Shabbat services in her tiny apartment, where 20 mismatched chairs of plastic and wood fill every inch of her living room.

In Havana, we visited the Sephardic Center and its adjoining tiny but powerful Holocaust museum. The center runs adult day programs, providing Jewish seniors with a place to socialize and share a meal.  On Shabbat, we worshiped at the Ashkenazi Patronato, a full-fledged synagogue with a very large sanctuary. I was relieved to see so many children on the bimah (pulpit) at the end of the service. This was the first place we visited where I felt the Jewish community would be able to perpetuate Judaism from generation to generation, l’dor vador.

In America, we worry so much about having a bountiful oneg (refreshments after services), an impressive sanctuary, a long membership list. We can’t always see how fortunate we are. We expect so much of our rabbis. We are impatient.

Cuban Jews do not have the luxuries we take for granted. They keep their traditions alive and engage in tikkun olam (healing the world) with few material resources, but they are content with what they have. Being in their presence has inspired me to rethink my values, intention, practices, and identity as a Jew.

After all, isn’t that the essence of being a Reform Jew?

Bethanne Knapp is a member and past president of Beth Am Temple in Pearl River, NY. She is the executive director of Temple Beth Sholom in New City, NY, and a member of the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism and serves as the chair of the Hudson Valley Community.

Bethanne Knapp
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