The Sefardi Center: Home of B’nai B’rith Cuba
HAVANA DE CUBA—Over the years B’nai B’rith has stitched many threads in the fabric of Jewish life in Cuba. Perhaps the most material impact currently is at the Centro Hebreo Sefardi. It is the base for the Maimonides B’nai B’rith Lodge with more than 125 affiliates.
The center is where B’nai B’rith sponsors daily meals for more than 150 seniors. It also is the beneficiary of a significant amount of mission aid and donations—medicines, health supplies, clothing, Judaica and other items.
Dr. Mayra Levy, a retired physician, author and professor, serves as the center’s president. Simon, Ida and Sammy also are officers and pivotal players in the daily operations of the Sephardi Center.
Mayra even makes periodic trips to United States communities to raise awareness and support. She and her team joined the B’nai B’rith Mission to celebrate the second night of Chanukah, describe services at the center and answer questions. It’s evening, the end of a busy travel day for the B’nai B’rith Mission participants, and further discussion will take place during a return visit in a couple of days.
That day arrives and Mission participants witness the center in full operation. An exercise class and weight lifters have the space in full motion. Workers are preparing lunch in a dining area for seniors. Arts and crafts teachers are assisting seniors on various projects that are available for sale.
The space has many purposes. It is the sanctuary during the high holidays and other occasions and, actually, during the coming week will be filled with celebration as Rabino Samuel Szteinhendler, who is based in Santiago, Chile, will officiate at seven weddings simultaneously. Rabbi Szteinhendler has shepherded the Cuban community for the better part of two decades and is a long-time friend of B’nai B’rith.
A Permanent Holocaust Display
Mayra guides the Mission through a new source of pride at the Centro, a permanent Holocaust display, “The Holocaust and the Creation of a Living Community,” which examines conditions in Europe that forced 11,000 Jews to seek refuge in Cuba between 1933 and 1942. It was funded anonymously and installed in December 2011 with the support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and the Jewish Cuba Connection headed by Stanley Falkenstein. Falkenstein serves on the board of B’nai B’rith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project.
ORT, the organization that has worked decades with Cuban Jewry as well, involved Cuban students in videotaping community members’ stories about the plight of the SS St. Louis in 1939, in which 930 Jewish refugees from Germany were disallowed from disembarking, though a small number were allowed to land. Most of the refugees ended up back in Europe after also being rejected by the United States and Canada. More than 250 on the Voyage of the Damned perished in the Holocaust. Posters telling the story are for sale for 5 CUCs (almost $6). Visitors buy them to endorse the exhibit and support the Center.
The Menorah Glows in a Warm Chapel
The center chapel is beautifully appointed, warm and comfortable, reflecting a time before the revolution and the contributions of B’nai B’rith, the Joint Distribution Committee and a growing number of visitors from throughout the world.
The leaders of the Cuban Jewish community appreciate visitors from all over the Diaspora as the State Department approves more visas from many religious and educational groups. The Cuban leaders say groups bring medicines, aid and donations, but on a much smaller scale than B’nai B’rith and the Joint Distribution Committee, among other large organizations. “Most people come here to learn about our community and absorb life here,” one leader says. “We appreciate all contributions, but they are different from sustaining gifts.”
B’nai B’rith provides sustaining gifts in its Tzedakah Project and the B’nai B’rith Mission has the advantage of the international organization’s relationships in the various Jewish communities. It understands Cuba’s unique needs. Finally, it has the experience of handling the logistics in producing many such trips for almost two decades.
Anyone interested in participating in or contributing to the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project should contact Heather McWilliams at the B’nai B’rith office in Washington at (202) 857-6530 or HMcwilliams@bnaibrith.org.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
Cuban Jewish Relief Blog
Reports on the B'nai B'rith International Cuba Jewish Relief project.
March 19-26, 2015
For more information on ways to get involved in the Cuban Jewish Relief Project or for mission registration, please contact:
B'nai B'rith Cuban
Jewish Relief Project
B'nai B'rith International
1120 20th St NW
Suite 300 N
Washington, DC 20036