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January 7, 2011

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JANUARY 7, 2011 PAGE 23A Cuba From page 1A she still treasures a 1998 photo of herself with Castro at a synagogue Chanukah party. "He was very kind to the Jewish community," she said of Cuba's former president. Just last summer, she noted, Castro invited the Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg to Cuba for an in- terview, duringwhich Castro affirmed Israel's right to exist and denounced Iranian Presi- dent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust. Dworin and other Jewish leaders insist there is no anti- Semitism in Cuba. In fact, in a symbolic event just a few weeks ago, Presi- dent Raul Castro joined the community for a Chanukah celebration Dec. 5 at the synagogue, and was given the honor of lighting the first candle of the menorah. Cuba is "a living paradox," said Maritza Corrales, a his- torian and author of "The Chosen Island: Jews of Cuba." The country is "religiously tolerant and yet not very interested in religion, which is why Jewish--a minority life--is OK," she said. From the Spanish Inquisi- tion to the Holocaust, Jews have found refuge on this small island 90 miles from Florida. However, that trend re- versed with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and establishment of the com- munist regime. "After 1959, more than 90 percent of Cu- ban Jews left, all the rabbis left, the kosher butchers " Morales said. Though Raul Castro has announced plans to fire half a million government work- ers and is encouraging some forms of private enterprise to boost the country's weak economy, Cuba remains a poor country--and those citizens who can leave often do. But Jewish life continues. On Sundays, three buses bring children from across the city to religious school at El Patronato, where they celebrate the holidays and learn "a little Hebrew," tradi- tion and history, Dworin said. "These people will be better Jews than their parents." Teens and young adults are drawn to E1 Patronato's "youth center," which boasts three computers, a plasma TV, a Wii, exercise equip- ment and a pool table-- amenities not widely avail- able in Cuba. There is an active youth or- ganization, and some young people have joined March of the Living trips to Poland or Birthright trips to Israel. Though travel off the island is typically restricted (and on the island, international newspapers are nowhere to be found and access to the Internet is limited), there seems to be a sort of benign benevolence toward Cuban Jews. William Miller, a younger- generation leader in the Ha- vana Jewish community (his grandfather was the com- munity's president for many years), expressed cautious optimism. "We are trying to create a real Jewish community center. For us it is very im- portant. We are trying to at- tract as many Jewish people as possible." The center even operates a free pharmacy--a bedroom- size room filled with floor- to-ceiling shelves stocked with everything from aspirin to expensive medications. While Cuba does provide free medical care to its citizens, pharmacies and hospitals often lack many of the drugs taken for granted by those in wealthier countries. Most of the items in the Jewish pharmacy have been donated by foreigners. The pharmacy in turn sends drugs to Cuban hospitals and gives them to both Jews and non-Jews who come by with a prescription. Through all these efforts, El Patronato hopes to keep Havana's Jewish community alive. It isn't easy. Young Cuban Jews are making aliyah to Israel (and often from there to the U.S.), and many Jews are marrying out of the faith, mainly because the pool of potential Jewish mates is so small. On the positive side, Dwo- rin noted that 73 people converted to Judaism in 2007, most of them partners in interfaith marriages. The diminutive, steely Dworin refuses to give up. Noting that Bet Shalom's sanctuary can accommodate a crowd of 300, she said, "We have more chairs than Jews, but someday we will fill them." J. assignment editor Liz Harris visited Cuba in Oc- tober with the Jewish Com- munity Center of San Fran- cisco's travel program. The group met with members of the Cuban Jewish commu- nity and toured Jewish sites of interest during a 10-day humanitarian mission to Havana and outlying areas. This article was reprinted by permission of J. the Jew- ish newsweekly of Northern California. By Liz Harris j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California SAN FRANCISCO--When completed, the synagogue will be called Or Hadash, meaning new light. It is a fitting name. For when this cinderblock house in a rural Santa Clara neighborhood is gutted and transformed into a dignified house of worship, it will rep- resentasplash of brightness in an otherwise pallid landscape of squat homes in varying states of disrepair. At last, area Jews will have a worthy house of prayer. Or Hadash will serve a few dozen Sephardic Jews from the countryside in central Cuba. The building--basi- cally a small home on a quiet street where horse and buggy is still a popular mode of trans- portation--was purchased in 2007 with $10,000 quickly raised by visitors from Wash- ington, D.C at the urging of their rabbi. David Tacher heads Santa Clara's Jewish community, which experienced a rebirth in 1996 "with the help of the Joint," he noted, alluding to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Before that, "There was a time when people didn't believe," Tacher said. "They couldn't be religious." Many years ago, Santa Clara housed a sizable Jewish community and synagogue. But the community shrank so much that the shul closed and the Jewish cemetery was practically abandoned. Tomb- stones were stolen and the grounds lacked maintenance. But things changed about 15 years ago. "There was an opening," Tacher said, "and religious communities were reborn." "My generation had 30 years of silence--a lost gen- eration," said the silver-haired 60-year-old, who is working hard to see that history does not repeat itself. Besides leading the drive for a synagogue, Tacher has overseen the cleanup of the aging cem- etery nearby and the installation of a Holocaust memorial. "We thought this was a beautiful thing to do--to remember and never forget," Tacher said as he stood in the cemetery. The stone monument is engraved in Hebrew and Span- ish with words that trans- lated mean "to remember our brothers and sisters who were killed in the Holocaust" Set in the earth in front of it are 10 cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto. Provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memo- rial Museum, the stones were carried individually in back- packs by a group of visiting Americans. Tacher also planted a tree in sand from the Negev, in tribute to the non-Jews who helped save Jews from the Nazis. "This tree symbolizes the desire to not have another Holocaust," Tacher said, "and we want to tell all the non-Jews to not be silent again." Tacher is trying his best to reach out to the local com- munity to demystify Jews and Judaism. Some neighbors still call the graveyard the "Syrian cemetery," he said, thinking that it was Syrians (not Jews) who resided in the area. "I explain every time that it is a Jewish cemetery. The first funeral [held] with the revival of the community was open to neighbors so they Liz Harris David Tacher at the Holocaust memorial in the Santa Clara Jewish cemetery could understand what is a Jewish community--and they started to understand." In the past year, Tacher added, "We have been trying to be more open, so everybody can understand what is the Jewish community in Santa Clara." Reprinted with permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, www. By Liz Harris j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California SAN FRANCISCO--Dr. Mayra Levy is devoted to her profession as a physician. But when offered the chance to teach clinical pharmacology at the University of Havana, thus reducing her hours at work, she jumped at the op- portunity. This gave her more time to devote to Havana's Sephardic synagogue, for which she serves as president. She's there afternoons, evenings and weekends. During a talk and tour of the facility with visitors, Levy held little back in ad- dressing the challenges fac- ing Centre Hebreo Sefardi. Though 65 percent of the Cuban Jewish community is Sephardic, her synagogue is steadily losing members. The majority of congre- gants are 60 or older, and the youth are gravitating toward Havana's Ashkenazi synagogue and community center. Havana's Sephardic com- munity purchased land for its synagogue in the 1950s and built a large sanctu- ary with 726 seats. But the revolution brought that momentum to a screeching halt: Clergy left the country and, of the Jews that stayed, most, like Levy, had neither the time nor inclination to pursue religious activities. Instead, they focused on day-to-day survival: raising children, working and strug- gling to get by on their slim government stipend. (Phy- sicians earn no more than others--the equivalent of $20 to $30 dollars a month.) But starting in the mid- 1990s, Jews have begun trickling back to the fold, Levy said. Life settled down, and children began asking questions about their reli- gious background. "People began to return to their roots." Eighty families constitut- ing 320 members belong to the synagogue, she said. "We always have a minyan, and kiddush," with 50 to 60 people attending Friday night services in the com- fortable, carpeted sanctuary. The synagogue's adjacent, larger building is closed off; much of the space is rented out as an exercise center (though it's free for Jews). Finding operating funds is difficult. "This is a com- munity that was in very bad conditions," she said. "We are very poor." Donations from the out- side help immensely. For example, a recent fund- raising campaign enabled the synagogue to purchase Close-lpata a minivan to brin~ older congregants to am from services, and to delive' meals to some families. Still, showing vsitors a downstairs roon that is used for a patawork stitching class, Lev)offers some handmade itens and pictures for sale. Thccrafts class is popular ammg the women, she said, as i a Sep- hardic cooking class "They [participants] make ~social life in quiet ways." sh said. Sunday Hebrew chool for adults is also p,pular. she said. "People wmt to know Hebrew, people vant to know Judaism, peop~ want to know about their Dots." On Friday nights they show movies for ioung Jewish cemetery Liz Harris people films "about Jew- ish life or of Jewish artists," Levy said. And young people come, she said, "but after, they go to the Patronato" the Ashkenazi Jewish center. Even her own son goes to Patronato. Herother son, a 33-year- old computer engineer, immigrated to Israel seven years ago. "Aliyah is a big problem for us." Levy said. "They want to have a better life. so we have to improve their lives here" to get them to stay. It's a daunting task. "We try to get them better condi- tions food. work but in reality they want to go. You can't put a chain on them." Last year alone. 58 Jews Liz Harris An Ashkenazi cemetery outside Havana left Cuba. Levy said. Most of them were young, but sometimes their parents follow. Going through the Canadian Embassy, "If you show you have a Jewish life, you can leave." she said. Levy recalled her own fam- ily's dilemma about staying in Cuba after the communist takeover. "My father said, 'Don't worry, this isn't going to last maybe two years,'" She wagged her finger. "Big mistake." Reprinted with permis- sion from j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern Califor- nia,