February 23, 2011

Marking 20 Years in Cuba

From Steve Schwager, CEO

This year marks the 20th anniversary of JDC’s work with the Jewish community in Cuba. The Castro government’s 1991 decision to allow greater religious freedom opened the door for JDC to help Cuba’s small Jewish community explore Jewish cultural and religious traditions for the first time in decades. In honor of the anniversary and of JDC’s upcoming Presidential Mission to Cuba in March, I share the thoughts of Fabian Triskier, Associate Director of JDC Latin America, after his most recent trip to the island last month.

My trip coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which commemorates the life of the man who delivered the famous "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

The date of my visit was intentional, for it coincided with another dream. During this mission, I witnessed the dream of 23 people being realized as they were recognized formally as Jews before a rabbinical court.

After a year of intense studies coordinated by Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, a Chilean rabbi who has been the religious leader of Cuba’s Jews, 23 members of the communities of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Guantánamo, Santa Clara, and Havana were formally accepted as Jews by a Beit Din made up of three rabbis who traveled to Cuba for the occasion. This rabbinical panel conducted rigorous evaluations, whose results demonstrated the remarkable commitment of these individuals and the strong ties that bind them to the ancient Jewish tradition and history.

Each shared a piece of history and family memories that expressed their eagerness to be part of the Jewish people. It is difficult to convey the intense emotion with which a young man from Guantánamo remembered stories about Jewish life in Cuba told to him by his grandfather, who had immigrated to Cuba from Turkey.

And then there is Sara, who recalls celebrating the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 with the community in Santa Clara and celebrating Passover by adhering to her father Moses’s instructions to refrain from eating flour (and when it was available, to eat matzot one week every year).

"It was a Passover without the afikoman, as there was no money to buy a gift," Sara told me.

Sara also shared the touching story of how her son-in-law decided to take the Hebrew name Joshua because, he said, “I feel like the heir of grandfather Moses and it will be my responsibility to lead the family along the road to a Jewish life.”

I also admired another young man from Camaguey who shared with me the pain and pride he felt when he was circumcised and remembered Abraham's covenant—a covenant to which he was now forever connected. The reading of the rabbinical certificates confirmed the full incorporation of each individual to the Jewish people and ended in a combination of tears, smiles, and hugs.

Early the next morning, we headed to a nearby beach where the sea served as the "Cuban mikvah,”( a natural pool or body of water used in Jewish religious practice as a part of the conversion process). Nature contributed its special touch, with the scenic beauty of the sun rising after a stormy night that had initially jeopardized the ceremony.

As they entered the sea, I could not help but think about that week's Torah portion, in which God told Moses, "Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments" (Exodus, 19:11). Thousands of years later, on a beach in Cuba, that Tuesday coincided with verse 16: "It happened on the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain.” Nature had also expressed itself in the same manner in biblical times, just prior to the culmination of the Jewish people receiving the Torah in the desert—an event which would define the destiny of the Jewish people. That Tuesday morning in Cuba, 23 Jews chose and committed to a new covenant and destiny with their People.

The celebration continued. In the afternoon, the three rabbis officiated at four weddings in the beautiful Patronato synagogue, rebuilt with the help of JDC. I was honored to be a witness to the Ketubah signing (marriage contract), and I stood proudly next to the chuppah. Adela Dworin, President of the Community, savored this milestone with much emotion and shared her loving appreciation for JDC.

The ceremonies concluded with the traditional breaking of the glass and the newly married couples dancing with Rabbi Szteinhendler and the 150 people who took part in the event. Then we joined in a warm celebration with Israeli dancing and lifted the newlyweds on chairs in the hall of the Patronato. The rabbis were thanked for their participation, devotion and warmth: Gustavo Kraselnik from Panama; Salomon Nussbaum from Argentina; and Shmuel Szteinhendler, who received special recognition in honor of his 100th trip to the island, ongoing work with JDC, and his commitment to keeping the flame of Judaism alive in Cuba.

From a professional perspective, JDC once again allowed me to be part of a historical event that still reverberates in my heart. I am honored to be a part of JDC’s work transforming the dream of the Cuban Jewish community into a reality over these two decades.

Like so many of us who have witnessed JDC’s work first-hand, Fabian’s account illustrates the commitment of the small but vibrant Cuban Jewish community. Irv and I are proud to help foster these experiences and look forward to many more in the future.

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