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Visiting the Jewish Side of Cuba

January 23rd 2015

Cuban Capitol

I joined this trip because my brother with whom I was traveling with knew the trip leader, Leanne Shamash, the Educator at Beth Elohim in Acton, MA.  Leanne's husband, Hooshang (Benny) Shamash, a friend of my brother, served as our prayer leader.  Benny immigrated to Worcester MA from Iran in order to attend College, and prays in the Sephardic style.

First minyan was in a meeting room the Crown Plaza Miami Airport on Erev Cuba for those needing to say Kaddish. Everyone else already had met but I knew two other people in the room, Rodney Hass who I went to high school with and Pam Weil, who I had met at conferences and who was once a teacher at Sherith Israel. Among the thirty of us there were two Early Childhood Educators and three synagogue educators.

When I first learned about this trip to Cuba I looked on Beth Elohim's web site to see where the Shul is. I wanted to see if they counted wen in their minyan. There had been a request for participants in a daily minyan while in Cuba. 'Egalitarian' in the description of CBE on their web site was my clue, in other words- I am counted. I was in. I missed a couple of the minyanim but whenever I heard the call I was there in hotels rooms, hallways, museums, waterfronts, facing east. The minyanim connected us to the reason for the mission and what connected us.

A minyan is an interesting kind of 'ice breaker' with different traditions, different levels of experience, different siddurim- Smart phones, someone's wedding bencher, iPads, and memory. In my memory I heard myself telling my students, wherever you go as a Jew you can(must) be part of a minyan. This was going to be proven very true in the days to come.

Much of my participation is internal. In my minds eye the text of the siddur is in front of me but I move at my own pace stopping to adjust the focus of my imaginary lense on Cuba and what these words mean to a Jew in Cuba. The question we kept asking ourselves - could we be so brave- resonated through the liturgy. L'dor v'dor.

We attended Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinner at the Ashkenazi synagogue, Beth Sholom, which is called La Patronata. There were once 15,000 Jews (Jubans) in Cuba. Now there are 1500. There is no anti-Semetism. The synagogue has a pharmacy to which we gave some of our donation. They also run a Religious School to which I brought PJ Library books written in Spanish.

Kabbalat Shabbat is my favorite part of the Shabbat ritual. The Shul gave us a spce to light Shabbat candles (we brought tea candles) before services outside the library. This community is comprised of Jews of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi background. The first synagogue in Havana was formed in 1910 by Turkish Jews who had settled there. They were followed by
Jews from Eastern Europe who landed there while my grandparents were arriving in New England. All part of Jews fleeing from somewhere seeking success and opportunity and freedom somewhere else. Through Intermarriage the community reflects the diversity of Havana.

The service was led by the Hazan and one of the older teenage boys. Another tour group from Miami was there and assorted foreign travelers from countries who are not required to travel to Cuba as a group as we did were there welcomed by the Havana congregation. There were about 20 children present from little to big and they clearly loved being there and acting happy to be with each other in the same ways our children do.

It was a traditional Kabbalat Shabbat, exactly as it is all over the world. There were Spanish translation in the siddurim and some Spanish reading of the psalms and some of the lyrics are in Spanish. We sang more than one version of favorite prayers, all part of the lexicon of World Jewish Music creating many meaningful beautiful moments: for one of the versions of Lcha Dodi the Hazzan assigned verses to different people and as the congregation sang the refrain those congregants sang their assigned verse. One of the congregants delivered the drash, relating the parshat to terrible current events in France while a young man translated concurrently into English. The children came up to the Bimah for the last part of the service. There was lots of hugging and wet eyes.

We were welcomed into a room with long tables for dinner, the challah and the food were prepared and served by the teens. This was a wonderful time to talk and get to know the congregants and the other guests asking and being asked, why did you come to Cuba. Some of us decided to walk the couple of miles back to the hotel and then continued along the Malecon (walkway along the warmed) the water had been very choppy all day with a storm coming down from the north and soon we could see lightning in the distant sky. In spite of the impending storm the Malecon was clearly the gathering place on a warm Friday night evening for the teenagers of the area, with their de facto chaperons being the vendors selling homemade chips, popcorn and ice cream while they hung out flirting and showing off their style...music all over the place. Within an hour the storm hit and poured heavily throughout the night and next morning.

Shabbat morning some of us were going to services at the Sephardic shul. Those of us who were comfortable driving on Shabbat got in a cab('56 Chevie) but due to the weather the walkers stayed at the hotel. Unfortunately when we got there the shul was closed, services and the lunch were cancelled due to a flooded lower floor. We had met with the leader of the Sephardic Shul the day before when we brought our donations for the community and had been looking good forward to having Shabbat morning with them. We helped support their community by buying lovely Challah covers made by their congregants.

Shabbat mincha minyan in the women's section on the 4th floor.
Another group in our hotel in Cuba over Shabbat was a group of retired Israelis who were traditional and kept kosher, as you might expected, had very specialized tour.Their tour leader koshered a part of the hotel kitchen.They had one problem, they only had 7 men, which prohibited them from saying Kaddish. The second night some of the men in our group did the mitzvah and went and become the 8th, 9th, and 10th for their minyan.

Shabbat afternoon I went with my brother for their minyan and I sat in the women's section which was a sitting space in the hall out of earshot of the men where this group of retired Israeli women talked among themselves. One woman was very friendly and told me that there were a couple of couples and five widows. She herself has been to India and Nepal and other exotic places with this Israeli tour company that provides kosher trips.

Minyan at the home of Rebekah Cohen
Rebekah's home serves as the center of Jewish life in Cienfuegos for the 20 people in their small Jewish community and the additional families from Santa Clar at holidays.

The dim and cool living room serves as a shul with stackable molded resin chairs for participants. There is a well stocked library of siddurim and ritual items brought as gifts from visiting delegations like the one I was on so we were able to have prayerbooks for all who needed.

Clearly it was a mitzvah to have a minyan for this small Jewish community in the south of Cuba, it was a mitzvah to give Rebekah' s sons, 14 and 25, a chance to be counted in a minyan, it's a mitzvah for those who are saying Kaddish and needed a minyan, and any time there are 10 Jews it is a mitzvah. But we were holding this minyan in Cuba, with Jewish Cubans, who with great courage and strength hold on to their Judaism.

Rebekah proudly displays certificates for her sons' participations in March of the Living and the Maccabia games all of wich was arranged through the Canadian Jewish Federation. We brought gifts for the Jewish community of goods that are not accessible there to everyone, including medicines, sports equipment and clothing and Rebekah distributes as needed.

Minyan on the dock of Cienfuegos as the sun set.
Our tour guide filled every moment with possibilities. One that fit my personal travel needs -always do a harbor tour- was a possibility on the evening when we returned from the town of Trinidad. A late afternoon circling of the closed harbor of Cienfuegos did not fail to fulfill with calm water, beautiful sunset colors another chance to interact with both our groups and other travelers and locals.

As the sky evened from day to night one of our minyan makers took out his phone with an app to determine exactly East, we turned as a group and had our Mincha minyan on the dock of this southern port of Cuba.

Minyan outside the cemetery.
We visited the Jewish Cemetery. In one corner there is the very first Holocaust memorial to ever be established.
Cemeteries tells many stories and I felt the whisperings of life in Cuba there. Set on a south facing slope over the decades it had suffered through hurricanes, hear and humidity. Trees that had sprung from weeds over shadowed graves clustered together. Many markers told the story of lives and marriages and children and parents but in stark contract lay the children's sections, blank concrete boxes marked only with the name and if lucky dates of births and deaths. These graves tell the story of hardship, epidemics, and pain.

A cemetery worker held a bottle of water for us as we left, stopping at the Tzedakah box to stand outside under the trees and hold our last minyan in Cuba.

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