Real olive oil makes light everlasting
SANTIAGO DE CUBA—The streets are narrow and the lights are dim in this residential area of one of Cuba’s oldest cities. Light that emanates from a Turkish façade reveals a royal blue and white exterior with tall windows and decorative wrought-iron covering.
This is the first stop for the B’nai B’rith Mission to Cuba, a synagogue established in 1939 by Turkish Jews, about 15 years after they arrived in the country. A portion of the few dozen Jews who remain in this area pour out of the doorway to greet their visitors.
Emma Levy is the Hatikvah community’s leader and after everyone is inside she welcomes the B’nai B’rith family. The Shabbat candles are lit and the greetings begin.
Photographs of Israel line the wall on the right. Chanukah decorations cover the opposite wall. At the back of the room is an area set up for services. Two steps lead to the bimah and a wooden, velvet-curtain-covered ark holds a new Sephardic torah. The bimah above the seating area gives the space its holy atmosphere. The sanctuary is impressive in its simplicity. Emma boasts that their ner tamid is the only one in Cuba that burns real olive oil.
Friday night services in Santiago include some recognizable tunes with a bit of a Caribbean flair, notably Lecha Dodi. Participation is high, the singing is energetic. Judaism fills the room and everyone’s hearts.
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Kansas City, Mo., delivers a sermon about Jacob’s dreams—sueños—and talks about the meaning of dreams, a concept that especially captivates the Cuban congregants. One congregant who traces her lineage four generations from Turkey has dreams of visiting Israel. A universal prayer book that contains prayers in Hebrew and transliterations, along with readings in Spanish guides the leaders.
After services, tables are placed in the back of the long room close to the entrance. Shabbat dinner is about to be served. The B’nai B’rith guests are about to be exposed to legendary Cuban cuisine of rice and black beans, plus salad and fish, topped off with pints of wonderful ice cream.
The mission participants learn that the small community contains a few physicians while others work in such areas as software sales. Young mothers and small children are part of the regular Friday night celebration.
Stuart Cooper, trip leader and chair of the Cuban Project, leaves behind several big bags of needed items for the community. It’s then time to bid farewell. The Mission also leaves behind support to cover the night’s Shabbat dinner and more.
Our hosts take favorite positions on the steps outside and wave as the bus departs. It’s dark out and the B’nai B’rith mission leaves its Santiago family in the shadow of light emanating from the interior of the synagogue.
The effort and desire to be Jewish ritually, socially and culturally is impressive. The Sabbath Queen gets welcomed in a wonderful way.
- 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