By Sienna Girgenti
Why do we light a candle for each night of Chanukah? As Hillel once said, I’ma’alin b’kodesh, to increase the sacred: Every act we perform should increase holiness in the world. We add a candle each night to bring more and more light into our communities and into our consciousness. Each year, the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project endeavors to achieve just that, leading missions of B’nai B’rith members and friends to expand our collective Jewish consciousness to embrace even the smallest of Jewish communities in Cuba.
During the week of Chanukah, the project led its final mission of the 2016 calendar year. With B’nai B’rith President Gary P. Saltzman making his first such journey, the group of 18 from across the United States visited seven different communities between Havana and the central provinces of Cuba. Saltzman’s was the second visit by a sitting B’nai B’rith president to Cuba in as many years.
The group began its journey on the second night of Chanukah, attending the holiday party at the Patronato community center in Havana. Hundreds of congregants gathered in the sanctuary, along with visitors from groups like our own, to share in candle lighting, prayers and presentations by the youth group, rikudim (Israeli folk dance) troupes and the choir.
“The Chanukah party was a wonderful exposition of the congregation’s strength,” Saltzman recalled. “It was an impressive way to kick off our week-long mission.”
Overflowing with hundreds of pounds of donations, the mission distributed medicines, medical devices, clothing and other needed items throughout the week. Many of the items brought to Cuba on B’nai B’rith missions are simply inaccessible on the island. Families may search in vain for months to acquire certain basic necessities. This mission had the opportunity to deliver a much needed wheelchair to 92 year-old Dr. Zoila Camps.
“The importance of this project is evidenced not only by those individuals whose lives we touch,” Saltzman said. “The critical support of B’nai B’rith and our missions serves also to illuminate their conviction. The survival of the Jewish community in Cuba is a testament to their passion and resolve.”
B’nai B’rith’s objectives include connecting Cuban Jews to the greater Diaspora to strengthen global partnerships and empower future generations. Daisy Bernal, president of the Javaia Jewish community in Sancti Spiritus, was moved by the group’s visit.
“Our community works day by day to preserve our roots so that our youth commit themselves to the future of Judaism in Cuba,” Bernal said. “For us, the true miracle of Chanukah is to have your group visit our community. We receive very few visitors. The most recent group to visit us in Sancti Spiritus was your own last Chanukah.” She humbly thanked Saltzman and the delegation for traveling the two hours by bus to spend the afternoon with her community.
Everyone knows the story of the miracle that is the sum and substance of Chanukah: the miracle of the small cruse of pure oil that should have been enough only for one day but instead burned for eight. Fewer know of the great miracle that is the strength and continuity of the Jewish community of Cuba. Despite the odds, the small but passionate Jewish community continues to flourish.