Cuban connection: Local congregation delivers torah, goodwill


Members of Congregation Shirat Hayam just returned from a mission to assist the Jews of Cuba. One of the highlights was donating a Torah to a needy synagogue. From left are Dr. Murray and Jill Goodman, a lay leader and Dr. Mayra Levy from Centro Sefaradi in Havana, Shirat Hayam President Desiree Gil and Arthur Epstein holding the Torah.

Marblehead – Cuba offers more than just antique cars and sparkling mojitos. A group of 44 members from Congregation Shirat Hayam just returned from a religious mission to the island where they had the opportunity to interact with a proud group of Cuban Jews struggling to maintain their culture and identity.

Prior to the Socialist Revolution, Cuba’s Jewish population numbered more than 15,000. After Fidel Castro took over in 1959, 90 percent of the Jews emigrated. Today, there are just 1,500 left on the island, the majority of whom live in Havana.

Although they are free to practice their religion, Cuban Jews face considerable hardships. There are no rabbis in the country; however, one from Argentina visits periodically to perform conversions, circumcisions and bar and bat mitzvahs. Lay people must lead all services, and houses of worship typically operate with meager resources.

When Desiree Gil, president of Congregation Shirat Hayam, learned that a synagogue in Havana was in need of a torah, she decided to organize a religious mission to bring one of the Swampscott temple’s extra scrolls to Cuba.

Under current law, U.S. citizens are not permitted to visit Cuba unless they are granted special clearance from the Department of the Treasury. A year ago, the congregation applied for and received a religious license, valid for two years, to assist the Jews of Cuba.

“The logistics of getting a torah from here to Cuba is not insignificant,” said Jill Goodman of Marblehead, who handled all the details.

Before departing, temple members raised $1,500 to get their torah in tip-top condition. They brought it to a scribe in New York, who combed through the scroll, letter by letter, to assure that it was legible. They purchased a new blue velvet cover with the word “Shalom” (peace) embroidered in gold. An inscription in Spanish explained that the torah was a gift from the Swampscott congregation.

The torah was carefully packed in a large box. In addition to the torah, the group brought more than 1,000 pounds of medical supplies, powdered milk, toothpaste, clothing and Judaica to distribute to needy Jews of Cuba.

Helaine Hazlett of Marblehead was touched by the genuine gratitude the recipients showed for the gifts.

“It was particularly emotional giving goods that had belonged to my own grandchildren to a young mother of two boys, one of whom will soon become bar mitzvah. She was so appreciative that she could not stop hugging us,” she said.

Over the course of a week, the group visited four congregations on the island. Many were particularly moved by their outing to Santa Clara, a town three hours from Havana that is home to a small congregation of 25 families.

Lay leader David Tacher proudly showed off the town’s cemetery, which featured a Holocaust memorial with cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto. After talking about how Jews all over the world are connected through their love of Israel, he invited everyone to water their tree of life, growing in the garden. When they departed, Tacher presented the group with a framed ceramic tile of a tree of life, created by a local artist. The memento will be hung in Shirat Hayam.

“Visiting that Holocaust memorial was one of the most poignant moments of the trip,” said Carol Denbo of Swampscott. “Who could possibly have imagined that a group of North Shore Jews would be standing with several of our Cuban brothers and sisters in the remote village of Santa Clara reciting the kaddish (Jewish mourner’s prayer) together in front of one of the most beautiful Holocaust memorials that I have ever seen, and then joining hands and singing ‘Hatikva’ (Israel’s national anthem)? It was a truly emotional and amazing experience that will stay with me forever.”

Shelley Sackett of Swampscott agreed.

“The determination of this small community in the middle of nowhere to commemorate the Holocaust and preserve the memory of their own dead impressed and moved me,” she said. “Etched in my mental photo album are the stones imported from the Warsaw ghetto and laid as a small path so that visitors could physically and emotionally experience a linkage to their Jewish brethren. Standing in the shadow of that small monument, I felt a powerful connection to this community and to my Jewish past, present and the hopes for the future.”

The group also visited Caibarien, a fishing village that boasts just two Jewish families. They were invited into Julio Rodriguez’s home, which was filled with Judaica.

“It was like a museum, and Julio and his wife were so proud to show it to us. They hadn’t had any groups visit in more than a year, and it was evident that they didn’t want to be forgotten,” said Harriet Brand of Marblehead.

For many, the highlight of the trip was presenting the Torah to Centro Sefaradi, a poor Havana synagogue that has 50 members. The event took place on a Saturday morning at a service conducted in Hebrew, Spanish and Ladino (a language primarily spoken by Sephardic Jews).

In a ceremonial procession, Congregation Shirat Hayam’s Arthur Epstein, Desiree Gil, and Dr. Murray and Jill Goodman handed the sacred scroll to Dr. Mayra Levy, president of Cuban temple.

The oldest female member of the congregation – a woman in her 90s – fascinated Jill Goodman.

“She kept exclaiming in Spanish and blowing kisses to the new torah. It was wonderful to watch her. We knew our torah had found a home and would be loved,” she said.

Dr. Murray Goodman added, “The Torah has bonded our Jewish communities forever.”

During the service, Shari Frost of Marblehead was seated next to a 13-year-old girl named Rebeca who spoke no English.

“When services began, Rebeca realized that I didn’t have a siddur (prayer book) and offered me hers,” she said. “It was immediately evident that she didn’t need one because she had the entire service memorized. Throughout the service I was repeatedly lost, but Rebeca never took her eyes off me, and each time I lost my place, she kindly reached over to turn the page and point.”

While in Cuba, Frost was able to locate the gravesite of a great aunt whom she had never met (see sidebar). This experience had a great impact on Marilyn Segal of Marblehead, who said, “It brought home how often that Jews moving to safety have had to leave people behind.”

Despite their economic challenges, Frost perceived the Cuban Jewish community as strong and vital. She pointed out that the synagogues were “nurturing on every level, providing services, spirituality, schooling, meals, medications, social activities and fitness classes. Our friends in Cuba were thrilled to entertain visitors from foreign Jewish communities, and were teary eyed when we left,” Frost added.

Donna Kagan of Marblehead remarked, “The poverty was obvious, yet the people were friendly and freely spoke to us about their lives. My husband and I understand so much more about the Jews of Cuba, and our curiosity will continue henceforth.”

Added Dr. Jeff Brand of Marblehead, “It was a unique opportunity to see a community many don’t get to see, from a Jewish perspective. It taught me how interconnected we are all as Jews.”

Echoed Beverly Kahn of Swampscott, “I was reminded that all Jews are eternally connected and have a moral responsibility to take care of each other.”

After visiting the country, Marla Belostock of Swampscott is dedicated to supporting the Jews of Cuba.

“The Jews in Havana are trying very hard to share the Jewish customs and ceremonies with all the Jews on the island. We can help them keep Judaism alive in Cuba,” she said.

“The Jews remaining in Cuba are as fiercely proud of their Cuban heritage as they are of their Jewish roots,” added Sackett, who hopes to participate in another mission to the island. Desiree Gil, who will step down shortly as president of Congregation Shirat Hayam, plans to organize a second mission to Cuba next winter.

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