Synagogue feeds physical, spiritual hunger in Santiago
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
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,
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
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
Although the synagogue badly needs certain amenities, the congregation
seems most interested in enhancing their Jewish knowledge, Safran
"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
"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."
(c) 1995, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc.,
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