Havana Jewish school’s class of 1959 reunites in Miami Beach
”Our school is our pride . . . our Yiddish school should live eternally,” sang the first graduating class of Havana’s first and only Jewish high school. The year: 1959.
Fifty years later, they were singing the same song again — only this time in Miami Beach.
Many students from the Centro Israelita de Cuba graduating class have known each other since kindergarten and have experienced life milestones together — about five attend the same temple in Miami Beach and two are sisters-in-law. Their closeness matches the tight-knit bond forged by many Cuban-Jewish immigrants.
”I have friends that I’ve known for more than 60 years. We are like family in a way,” said Rosa Zipper, 67. “We still hug and kiss.”
Most of the class of 1959 reminisced Saturday over old photos and other artifacts at the reunion, which took place at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation, a large building with stained-glass framed by asymmetrical concrete squares, in Miami Beach. Ten from the class and about 100 others, including younger schoolmates and family members, attended the event. Fanny Bemoiras, 67, brought her 89-year-old mother, who was like a class-mom.
After the three-hour prayer service, the class sang its alma mater, which was written in Yiddish by Zipper’s father.
After receiving commemorative diplomas, many said Centro Israelita lives on through their friendships and memories — even though Fidel Castro shut it down, as well as other religious institutions, around 1961.
”It wasn’t the ending of our education, but the beginning of a lifetime of friendships,” Luis Feder, 67, said.
Their story is much like that of other Cubans, who fled the island nation following Castro’s rise to power.
Bemoiras and many other graduates left for the United States in 1960. Most fled ahead of their parents, scattering across the United States, Latin America and Israel.
Centro Israelita had been a grammar school for almost 30 years before school leaders — many of them parents — built a high school on the building’s second floor around 1956. Before that, classes took place in nearby buildings, including a funeral parlor.
At the time, Israel was in its infancy and many Cuban Jews felt it was important to teach their children about Israel and Jewish values, attendees said.
The students learned about Jewish history and holidays in Yiddish, a Germanic language popular among Eastern European Jews, and took secular classes such as psychology and science.
Mario Chizyk, class valedictorian, even delivered his graduation speech in Yiddish.
”I’m a little apprehensive about seeing people I haven’t seen for a long time,” Chizyk, 67, said. “We’ve stayed close, but some I haven’t seen for a while.”
But he said he wasn’t worried about recognizing his former classmates because each name tag included a senior yearbook photo.
The 1959 yearbook, which Chizyk helped put together, was the only one ever published. A graduation photo from the yearbook shows boys wore white tuxedos and girls white gowns.
By building the high school and three temples between 1953 and 1960, the Jewish community in Havana showed that it expected to be in Cuba for a long time, said Ruth Behar, author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.
”It means they planned to leave their roots there. The Jews had reached the pinnacle of their success, but Fidel came six years later and many had to pick up and leave with just a suitcase,” Behar said.
Although many Jewish-owned shops were nationalized after the Cuban Revolution, few Cuban Jews hold hard feelings. Instead, many feel a strong connection to the island they left behind, she said.
About 15,000 Jews lived there before the revolution; today, there are fewer than 1,000.
”It’s something that united us — we have the same feelings, we went to the same places, we enjoyed each other,” said Zipper, who still remembers the words to the school’s alma mater.
This wasn’t the first reunion for the school. The last was held 20 years ago in Miami. It was a big formal bash. This year’s was more casual.
”We have to celebrate right now. We’re all walking. Who knows what will happen in five years?” Bemoiras said. “We don’t have time to be waiting.”