A Journey to Remember in Cuba: Cantor Sarah J. Sager and our Fairmount Temple Trip to Cuba

Photo: Our Cuba travelers are home!  They had a wonderful trip and if you would like to hear about it, Cantor Sager will be speaking about their experience in Cuba at Friday’s (Nov. 9) Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:15 p.m.  You don’t want to miss it!!!

This blog post is excerpted from the remarks on Kabbalat Shabbat at Fairmount Temple, of Friday, November 9, 2012, of Cantor Sarah J. Sager, upon return from  leading the Fairmount Temple first-ever trip to Cuba. We encourage you to share, respond and ask questions of Cantor Sager below, so that she and other members of the Fairmount Temple delegation of 33 travelers can offer their responses to what was a dynamic and moving experience for each of them.


As our trip to Cuba was drawing to a close, members of our group kept coming up to me with the same question: “How will we ever describe this experience?”  “How will we convey to the people back home all that we saw and heard and felt?”

A few minutes after midnight on Monday night as I was just coming into my house, I received a text message from my daughter, Jennifer, who had just arrived back in Minneapolis where a friend of hers had picked her up.  She wrote:  “Mom, no one is going to get it!”  The uniqueness, the overwhelming nature of the experience, the depth of feeling evoked and the humility we felt in coming face to face with living examples of courage,  heroism, determination and commitment was beyond anything any of us had ever imagined or experienced.

We had departed Cleveland as a Fairmount Temple Mission to the Jewish Community of Cuba.  We were bringing donations of medicines, clothes, school supplies and sacred texts.  We brought, as well, significant contributions of tzedakah.  But each of us learned, very quickly, that we would be returning with far more than we brought.

We departed with the naïve and somewhat misguided notion that the Jewish life we live is to be emulated and shared.  It is, and we still feel that way, but we could not have anticipated how much the Cuban Jewish community would teach us about Judaism, about survival, about what it means to be committed beyond the rational ability to explain, about what it means to create a Jewish life when there are no resources and precious few Jews. We met and interacted with a Saving Remnant of our people. Here, we speak easily and often of the absolute value of every human being, that to save a single life is to save the entire world.  Cuban Jews  live these words.  Every single day, the vitality and vigor of the Jewish community they are re-building is dependent upon every single precious soul.  What was once a thriving community all but disappeared after the Revolution of 1959 as the Jews fled the country in the wake of Castro’s victory and the advent of communism.  The State was never officially anti-Semitic, but it was anti-religious and Jewish life all but disappeared.  With the fall of the Former Soviet Union in 1991, the restrictions against all religious observance relaxed and slowly Jewish life has re-emerged.

Cuban Jews had no books, no knowledge of Hebrew, no clergy and no teachers.  We had the great honor and privilege to meet contemporary heroes and heroines who have made it their life’s work to fill that vacuum.  Within an hour of arriving at the Havana airport, we were sitting in the sanctuary of the refurbished Sephardic Center as Myra Levy, physician and leader of the center, explained to us how they had restored their building, how they care for the community – particularly the elderly, how they are now teaching Hebrew and even celebrating an occasional Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  She spoke with great pride and dynamism of Jewish observance, of the ways in which the medicines we brought would be used for the benefit of anyone who came to their doors – Jews and non-Jews alike.  We presented to her our donations and gift of tzedakah and then, feeling powerfully and deeply a strong sense of community, we sang, 32 voices strong: Hine Ma Tov, how good it was to be joined in friendship with these fellow Jews.  Myra’s eyes shone with tears.

The very next day we met Adella Dworin, the retired president of the Patronato, the largest synagogue in Havana.  She spoke at length with us of the unique challenges facing the Cuban Jewish community, of the ways in and measures with which they maintained their now historic building, of the young people who emigrate to Israel for a better life and a more promising future.  It was painful for us to hear of so many whose children no longer live in Cuba and yet who, like Adella, remain in Cuba because, as she said: “I am needed here.”  We were transfixed by every word she shared with us, by her obvious pride in their successes, of her unexpected talents as a fund raiser (“schnorer” as she self-deprecatingly and humorously related), of her quiet nobility and simple grace that spoke volumes about the extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, determination and commitment of this remarkable woman.   It was eye-opening as well, to hear her tell of Fidel Castro’s visit to the Patronato during Chanukah several years ago and Raoul Castro’s more recent visit.  We could see the pride and excitement in her face as she described both events. Whatever we might think of the political situation, they are Cuban Jews and the president of their country had twice visited the synagogue – with respect, warmth and appreciation for their community.  As we sang L’chi Lach for the journey Adella has lived and the profound blessing that she is, we all experienced tears of unexpected connection, recognition, and even of God’s presence in that exchange.

We left Havana for the beautiful countryside and met David Tascher who could barely contain his excitement that on Shabbat Chanukah next month,  the 25 or so Jews of Santa Clara will dedicate their new Ark by marching the Torah scrolls under a chuppah to their new home.  At his request, we sang Shehechayanu for this accomplishment and then, because we will not be present for this major event, we sang SimanTov for the future arrival of the Torahs.  He clearly did not want us to leave as we continued to sing joyously and emotionally together – tears filling his eyes as they did all of ours.

We met Rebecca Langus, her non-Jewish husband, Ramon, and her 2 children in the living room of their 3rd floor apartment built above the house of her parents – where the few Jews of Cienfuegos gather to worship.  Soft-spoken and modest, her story was as moving and inspiring as the others.

We saw courage and guts in action.  We learned how the descendants of Jews who had been assimilated for two generations were re-discovering their Jewish roots – proudly re-claiming their heritage and living Jewish lives.  We learned that the Jewish community would accept anyone with one Jewish ancestor or who converted to marry a Jew, that a Cuban minyan is 7 Jews, 2 Torahs, and God; that the visiting rabbi from Argentina performs as many as 25 marriages at one time, that 200 young people gather at the Patronato for youth events, that a 16 year old son of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish estranged father chose to be circumcised in order to feel authentically and fully Jewish.  We joined the Jewish community at the Patronato for Kabbalat Shabbat services led by a 24-year-old young man who had learned to daven from a visiting Argentinian Cantor and the 23-year-old president of the Youth organization. We were  honored to join them for their communal Shabbat meal, replete with roasted chicken and home-made challah.

At that meal, we heard remarkable stories of Holocaust survivors, of the descendants of Jews from the Mediterranean basin, the turcos, and those of Eastern European descent, the palacos.  We learned that with all of our resources we may not be as fully invested in our Jewish lives and Jewish future as this Cuban community of approximately 1200 souls who have created Jewish lives out of virtually nothing.

In these few moments, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the impressions, images, sights and sounds that captivated us; of how clear it became that the continuing Embargo of Cuba is depriving us of the richness of exchange as much as it continues to hurt the Cuban people for no apparent reason.  It is a poor country that, in many ways, exists in a time warp.  We saw everywhere, the iconic American cars from the 1950’s that somehow keep running because the Cubans have neither the money nor a supplier for new cars.  We saw formerly magnificent mansions that are decaying over the heads of 5 and 6 families who somehow manage to live in them.  We experienced the beginnings of private enterprise in the Crafts Market and in privately owned and operated restaurants.  We heard music everywhere – at every meal, in the streets. Several of us had the privilege of singing with an outstanding choir that had prepared an hour concert just for us with repertoire that extended from the Baroque to American and Cuban folk songs.  I sent them a Hebrew song which they not only learned – but memorized!    We were overwhelmed with the cultural richness of the country as we witnessed world class music, art and dance.  We were warmly and enthusiastically greeted wherever we went.  The Cubans are open and friendly people who like Americans even while they are hoping that the Embargo will soon end.  We felt safe wherever we went, even walking in poor neighborhoods late at night.

We experienced the joy and adventure of travelling together, of becoming a cohesive group, of getting to know one another and enjoying each other’s company in a way that is completely different from being at home.  We were a wonderfully inclusive, accepting community.  We laughed and sang, danced and cried, we talked and debated; we relied upon each other and shared, in profound ways, every detail of this journey.  Our group was blessed with musicians, with those who could speak Spanish, with parents and their adult children, friends, singles, and married couples.  We learned about our own Jewish lives and returned inspired, humbled, transformed, and eager to travel again with members of this remarkable congregation.

Last Friday night, during Shabbat dinner at the Patronato, the newlywed non-Jewish husband of a Jewish wife spoke of his upcoming conversion and circumcision.  When asked how his parents felt about his conversion, he indicated their complete acceptance and support of his decision.  His young wife added the sentiment that every Cuban Jew feels and that each of us felt meeting, sharing with, and learning from each of them:  “It is an honor to be a Jew.”

Shabbat Shalom.