Argentine rabbi ignites fervor
(A Cuban Revival, Part 3)
in dormant Cuban communities
By Kenneth Bandler
HAVANA (JTA) -- Strolling
on Paseo Prado, one of the Cuban capital's main boulevards, Rabbi
Shmuel Szteinhendler,with eyes open wide and a broad smile, stops
a group of schoolchildren and charms them into singing.
The 20 children, all
strangers to the rabbi, are gleeful.
Their young teacher
steps forward and selects one to recite a poem. As soon as she
finishes, Szteinhendler lifts the young girl, gives her a loving
hug and a kiss on the cheek, and thanks all the children gathered.
Once again, the charismatic
Argentine-born rabbi has touched some individuals in a meaningful
``Being a rabbi has
to be a kind of vocation -- a passion -- a mission,'' says Szteinhendler,
His mission, he says,
is ``to give a meaning to being in this world.''
lives, especially Jewish souls, is his special mission.
For the Jews of Cuba,
Szteinhendler's periodic visits during the past four years have
been central to the renaissance of their community. He has helped
fill a void created more than three decades ago when all the rabbis
fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
is our spiritual father,'' says Yosef Levy, president of the Sephardic
Jewish Center here. ``We only see him two or three times a year,
but he is always in our minds.''
his communal career at the age of 15 in Buenos Aires, where he
later was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. For the past 18 years,
he led a congregation in Guadalajara, Mexico.
About 20 percent of
that congregation came from Cuba when thousands of Jews fled Fidel
Castro's revolution. He says his congregants led him to believe
that there were no Jews left in Cuba,except for a few elderly
But, in January 1992,
Szteinhendler made his first visit here at the behest of the American
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had entered Cuba a
year before to provide community-development expertise in reinvigorating
a long-dormant Jewish community.
``I remember they told
me, `Don't forget us,' because other rabbis had come and gone,''
Szteinhendler recalls of the Jews he met then. When he returned
two months later with religious supplies, ``they were shocked
that I returned.''
appeal to this community now totaling some 2,000 people quickly
became apparent when he accompanied a JDC board mission to Cuba
in early December. The trip coincided with the 40th anniversary
of the Patronato, the main synagogue here.
Szteinhendler was continually
praised by Cuban Jews, both old and young, for his work with their
community. At times he could be seen fighting back the tears of
joy that come from knowing deep inside that in Cuba he has clearly
fulfilled his mission in life.
``When you perform
a mitzvah for someone, it is not so important that the person
thank you,'' Szteinhendler says. ``You must thank the person who
allowed you to perform the mitzvah -- and then you really feel
recently moved to Santiago, Chile, to head a congregation, is
not alone in bringing to Cuba the vitality of the Argentine Jewish
community, the largest in Latin America.
The JDC program in
Cuba was initiated in 1991 by Alberto Senderey, an Argentine who
now heads the JDC office in Paris.
Jorge Dinier, who just
completed two years here as director of the JDC program in Cuba,
also is from Buenos Aires.
Along the way, they
have brought in Argentine teachers and rabbis to help with the
rejuvenation of the Cuban Jewish community. Dinier's successor
is yet another Argentine, Roberto Sanderowitsch.
about his experience with Cuban Jewry stems from the knowledge
that here he finds ``people who are in real need and in worse
condition'' than where he comes from and works.
``Here they are fighting
for higher values,'' he says.
- Jewish Telegraphic Agency