Our Cuban Jewish Relief Project intern is on the ground, now a few weeks into her semester-long internship. You can read her first hand account and thoughts on her experience thus far below, in BOTH ENGISH AND SPANISH. The English version is first, click below or scroll down to read her blog in Spanish.
After a couple of weeks in Cuba, I’ve been able to spend some time with the Jewish community of Havana and I must say I’m surprised on how a kehila (congregation) of around one thousand people is so alive. The local community was rebuilt at the beginning of the 1990s, when many of its current members rediscovered their Jewish roots. Since then some organizations, like B’nai B’rith International, have been supporting diverse, artistic and cultural projects, tzedakah initiatives and celebrations of festivities and Jewish traditions both in Havana, where the majority of Jews are located, and in Cuba’s provinces.
But regardless all the efforts for maintaining the Jewish identity, the community in Havana doesn´t have a rabbi, a Jewish school or a diversity of entities like it used to have when it had more than 15 thousand people; all the activities take place exclusively around the three synagogues of the city. Therefore, the same buildings where the religious services of Fridays and Saturdays take place are being used for a variety of activities like rikuddim (Israeli folk dance) groups of all ages, social help initiatives, small entrepreneurships, entertainment programs, workshops for the elderly, a youth group and a Sunday school named for Albert Einstein. This is where Cubans learn Hebrew and Judaism.
You might be asking yourself how three synagogues survive with such a small number of people. No doubt this is possible thanks to the participation of the members and the roles they have been taking, many times studying and learning the ways to deepen our traditions. In such a short time I’ve been able to see people that are completely committed to the Jewish life and willing to give whatever they can to work for its continuity. Young people and families are constantly moving to other countries, especially Israel and the United States, and the community has been reducing in number and participants. That is why the effort of the ones that are here has a double meaning.
Although people of all ages work every week to keep that vitality I mentioned before, what has surprised me the most is the commitment of some elderly people who are not only finding a space to receive the community support, but a place to give. When you start talking to the seniors it is easy to find one that is volunteering to visit the people in need, participate in the rikuddim group, bake the challah for Kabalat Shabbat and help in administrative tasks or the religious services.
People multiply their participation; they have more than one role, because they know the continuity of the community depends on it. This way they make an effort to rescue and pass on a history and a tradition anchored in buildings of the fifties that are not only preserving the perfect aesthetic of another time, but also the memory that many of these people have of their childhood, of their migrant parents, or in some cases even of the first years after their own migration from different places.
Cubanos haciendo una comunidad judía en La Habana
Constantemente jóvenes y familias emigran a otros países, especialmente a Israel y a Estados Unidos y la comunidad se ha ido reduciendo en número y en participantes. Por eso resulta doblemente significativo el esfuerzo que hacen los que continúan aquí.
Si bien gente de todas las edades se entrega semana a semana para que continúe aquella vitalidad que mencionaba antes, lo que más me ha sorprendido es el compromiso de algunos adultos mayores que encuentran un espacio no solo en el que recibir el apoyo comunitario, sino que también un lugar desde el que pueden entregar. Al ponerse a hablar con los miembros de mayor edad es fácil encontrar a alguno que se voluntarice para visitar a los necesitados, participe en un grupo de rikudim, hornee las jalot para el kabalat shabat y ayude en tareas administrativas o en los servicios religiosos.
Las personas multiplican su participación, suplen más de un rol, porque saben que de eso depende la continuidad de la comunidad. De esta manera se esfuerzan por rescatar y transmitir una historia y una tradición ancladas en edificios construidos en los años cincuenta que no solo guardan y preservan una impecable estética de antaño, sino que también los recuerdos que varias de estas personas tienen de sus infancias, de sus padres inmigrantes o incluso en algunos casos de ellos mismos cuando habían llegado hacía no mucho desde distintos rincones.
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