Millennium in Cuba
by June Safran

I just got back from six weeks in Cuba where I had the wonderful experience of meeting Cuban Jews all over the Island, celebrating Chanukah, Shabbat, and even a bar mitzvah.

I spent the first week in Santiago de Cuba with our friends at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva where I lived in two different homes of members of the community. Even though more than thirty active members have made Aliyah to Israel, the community is strong and the individuals are as warm and loving as ever.Services continue to be moving in this community even though most of their trained leadership made Aliyah early in 1999.

We celebrated both Shabbat and Chanukah but since there were no potatoes to be had on Friday night, we honored Chanukah by eating fried chicken instead of latkes. Of course, we ate fried chicken in honor of Shabbat, also, since that is the custom each Friday night.

Shabbat was a wonderful twenty-six hours as we prayed together, studied together, and ate together. In other words, it was a usual Shabbat in Santiago. On the fourth night of Chanukah we had a very special celebration with lots of dreidle gaming, food, and lively singing and dancing that was enhanced by the participation of the Jewish members and friends of a choral group from Seattle.

At the end of the week, two other people and I set out for most of the Jewish communities on the Island. The landscape was inspiring, the Cuban people were very nice, and the members of the Jewish communities were wonderful to us. We discovered that they are very much involved with our heritage and spent long hours talking and planning the future as well as enjoying the present with each other.

Shabbat found us back in Havana where we prayed and ate dinner in the social hall of the Patronato. All activities now take place here while the Patronato is being refurbished and is building classrooms in the old balcony. Soon teachers will no longer have to compete with the sounds of other classes sharing the same space nor will any class have to sit on the floor of the sanctuary entranceway in order to have a space of its own.

With Sunday came the twenty-one members of our tour group who were to have a wonderful time visiting three Jewish communities in Havana and three in the countryside. We ate a very tasty and elaborate lunch in the home of the president of Cienfuegos where we were entertained with a performance by the children. Then they danced for us and invited the two children of our group to join in.

Santa Clara was our next stop where we were shocked at the poor condition of the Jewish cemetery that is being used as a sports field by local children who have no other open space in which to play ball. The walls are gone, having become building material for the local homes of these poor people who do not understand that they are being disrespectful to our dead. All but two members of the community met us for dinner at the hotel. It happened to be the night of the brightest full moon in more than a century so we gathered outside before dinner and made a Shehechianu upon seeing such a bright moon for the first time. Suddenly, there was a circle of people, arms entwined, singing Hebrew songs together as one community. It's a wonder we ever reached the dinner table. Our last community outside of Havana was Santiago. One of our greatest joys was taking members of the local communities with us almost everywhere we went and sharing meals with some of them almost every day. Thus, there was a lot of information exchanged and a lot of friendships made.

The most significant highlight of the trip for the ten of us who have been to Cuba before was the bar mitzvah in Santiago of Alejandro Aloma Farin, son of Julio Aloma, religious leader, and nephew of Eugenia Farin, president. Several members of the family participated in the services and we enjoyed sharing this very joyous occasion watching the parents and other relatives bursting with pride.

We spent the afternoon studying, than celebrated in the evening at a party given by our group with dinner, lots of dancing and even swimming . Yes, swimming. We had dinner around the pool at a restaurant that I found just outside of Santiago. Alejandro was raised in the traditional chair before we added to his ritual gifts with a gift to fit the tradition of being a Cuban male Ė a baseball glove, bat, ball, and even a cap that proclaimed in Hebrew that he is part of Berkeley.

Among the many activities in Havana was the Havana Lodge Bínai Bírith meeting. Warner Bein Oberndoerfer, president of the Golden Pacific Region and a member of our group, spoke about Bínai Bírith projects in the U.S. and Dr. Robert Safran, member of the Oakland Lodge, gave a talk on Prostate Cancer. Now, all Jewish men in Havana will want Vitamin E because Dr. Safran told them it was the only preventive treatment proven to help in the fight against this disease.

I want to leave other tales of the trip for the future and tell you about our new project. The American Jewish Ballet Company is planning to travel to Havana for performances at the historic Lorca Theater on May 27th and 28th. They have been invited to participate in the Jewish communityís program to commemorate the visit of the SS St. Louis to Havana Harbor in 1939.

The AJB will present both a Holocaust piece and other pieces based on Jewish life and Biblical stories. Since the performances will be in the Lorca Theater, a popular public hall, non-Jewish Cubans and tourists will also be able to attend. This allows us to raise awareness of the Holocaust among all Cubans and to give tourists another (unexpected) venue for dealing with Holocaust. In addition, such a public activity would serve to raise the stature of the Jewish community in the eyes of the Office of Religious Affairs and other government agencies with whom we will be dealing.

A sponsorís tour is being organized for those who sponsor a dancer in the Send a Dancer to Havana category at $1000 per dancer. Since there are only twelve dancers to sponsor, be sure to act soon. Of course, we will happily receive funds for arms and legs and torsos if you want to help with the project but donít have an extra $1000 to spare.

Finally, people often wonder if all this work is making a difference, especially since so many Cubans are making Aliyah. Well, I can tell you that most of them are going to Israel with knowledge of their new homeland, some Hebrew, and a deep feeling of being Jewish. Several people talked to me during the last week to tell me that the Jewish materials we bring are essential to their growth as Jews, as are the individuals we bring to teach. Over and over again, I was told that that they look forward to our groups coming because the extent of our involvement is unique.

Iíll finish by telling you about a comment from my friend, Isaac Gelen, that explains why I expend so much energy for these people. As we returned from our exciting day-long trip to Vinales with ten or more Cubans along, Isaac leaned over from across the bus aisle and said, "June, you donít bring people to Cuba, you bring love."

Letís work together to fund the American Jewish Ballet in May,2000.

Send love.

June Safran