Synagogue feeds physical, spiritual hunger in Santiago


Bulletin Staff

The Jews of Santiago, Cuba, have always had faith. It reverberates through the barren walls of their newly acquired synagogue in salsa melodies and Hebrew prayers sung with gusto.

The community's 80 members recently added new songs and chanting skills to their religious repertoire, as well as the blessings before and after meals, and a Tu B'Shevat Haggadah. Their new knowledge and resources were a gift from their sister synagogue -- Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Twenty people, 14 of them members of the Conservative congregation, recently visited Santiago, at the southeastern tip of Cuba, and Havana.

Equipped with copies of prayer services, haggadot, books, dried fruit, toilet paper, felt-tipped pens, construction paper, a cup for ritual washing, letters from their children, and a wooden tzedakah box, the group met members of their Cuban sister congregation for the first time last month.

The Cuban Jews were appreciative of the goods but were really "hungry for a spiritual life and what we could offer them in that way," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman.

Kelman knew Cuba's Jews, like the rest of its citizens, were suffering since the former Soviet Union stopped financially supporting the country. But he learned of the spiritual needs of Santiago's Conservative congregation, Hatikvah, through one of his own congregants, June Safran.

Safran had visited Cuba twice -- once helping to establish a Hadassah chapter in Havana and another time touring the entire country and staying with locals.

Safran was familiar with the work of the Joint Distribution Committee, assisting with both religious and practical concerns throughout the country. However, she was struck by the particular needs of Santiago's small Jewish community and hoped her own congregation could help.

Last year Santiago's synagogue -- a long rectangular building with a plain ark, folding chairs, classroom, office and modest kitchen -- was returned by the Cuban government, which had taken over ownership because the congregation could not pay its taxes.

Despite its hardships,"the community has always been in existence, full of life and passion and energy," Kelman said. "The synagogue is the focal point now."

Services at Hatikvah are led by laypersons. A traveling rabbi visits from Chile every few months, and the Torah is on loan from another congregation.

Although the synagogue badly needs certain amenities, the congregation seems most interested in enhancing their Jewish knowledge, Safran said.

"Their No.1 need is making a Jewish connection," she said. "Interaction is the most important thing for them."

On the trip, Kelman taught the week's Torah portion, the Ten Commandments, while Bay Area congregants worked with the children. The group also addressed pragmatic concerns like how to keep a synagogue financially secure.

Congregant Jeanne Reisman of Oakland served as the group's translator.

In addition, the two congregations celebrated a Tu B'Shevat seder, performed an early Purim shpiel, or play, visited the community's remote Jewish cemetery and planted trees there.

They also agreed to pay for repairs on one of the cemetery walls, which is crumbling. Congregation Beth Abraham in Oakland is assisting in the effort.

Meanwhile, Hativkah is working hard to bolster its Jewish offerings.

Last year its leaders traveled to Havana to train for the High Holy Days. And, with the help of other Americans, they started a Sunday school.

Most of the Cuban Jews with Jewish knowledge are old -- many of them are immigrants from Poland and Turkey. The rest of the community "is looking for a way to emotionally survive," Safran said.

"My goal was to make a connection between the two communities and show them how a community is participatory," she added. "I think we did that."

But Safran and others are now concerned about maintaining their relationship with Cuba's Jews. Since two unarmed civilian aircraft were shot down by Cuban military planes in February, the United States has tightened its restrictions on travel to the island nation. Now, U.S. residents wishing to travel to Cuba must go via a third nation.

As a result, it will be more difficult for American Jews to bring supplies to Cuba's small, struggling Jewish communities.

These U.S.-Cuban tensions may also make Cuba's Jews feel isolated, and slow down the development of their identities as Jews.

"Contact with Americans makes them feel like they're really connected," Safran said. "The United States Jewish community means a lot to them."

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