March 8, 2001

Jewish group brings religious history to Cuban counterparts

By Jenn Director Knudsen, Globe Correspondent, 3/8/2001. Boston Globe.

Anold Zar-Kessler saw the movie ''Buena Vista Social Club'' and had an epiphany. Not to organize a band and launch a new career but to organize a group from his synagogue, Congregation Beth El of Sudbury, to travel to Cuba.

Cuba ''seemed like a community and a nation under glass,'' said Zar-Kessler, head Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston in the Oak Hill village of Newton.

One year later, 14 members of Congregation Beth El have just returned from a week-plus visit to Havana and Cienfuegos, a bare-bones town two hours southeast of the capital.

Besides seeing the country and its people up close, Zar-Kessler said, the group was able to connect with a community of 30 Jews in Cienfuegos who have no rabbi or synagogue and read no Hebrew.

''While they identify themselves as Jews, they have no real history of what all these traditions are,'' said Neil Bernstein, 60, of Wayland.

The congregation members paid about $1,500 each for the trip. They returned last week, and tomorrow night at 8:30 will talk about their experiences after the Shabbat service at Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue of about 400 families.

The visitors brought Cienfuegos's Jews a suitcase of ritual objects and educational materials, hoping not only to teach the Cubans more about their religion, but also to create a long-term connection.

''It was like meeting long-lost cousins,'' said Martin Brauer, 50.

To travel legally to Cuba, the Americans had to prove to the US and Cuban governments they were going for religious purposes and to be met in Cuba by a religious organization. They were also met by a tour guide provided by the Cuban government, who accompanied them during their stay.

The Americans used a simultaneous translator, as few spoke any Spanish. One, Jane Zion Brauer, Martin's wife, does speak it fluently and also helped people communicate.

Before the 1959 revolution that overthrew the Bautista regime and installed Fidel Castro as leader, an estimated 30,000 Jews, of whom roughly 12,000 were affiliated (meaning they adhere to one of the three main branches of Judaism) called Cuba home.

Most have since fled the country, many emigrating to the United States and Israel. Today, it is believed that 1,350 affiliated Jews remain in the country, 1,000 in Havana, said Dr. William Rekant of the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that helps coordinate travel, donations, and relief work all over the world.

In the capital city there are synagogues, Jewish libraries, Jewish community centers, and other places for Jews to meet and worship. Some Jews there can read Hebrew, and about 80 children attend weekly Sunday school classes.

In Cienfuegos, by contrast, there is no rabbi or synagogue. To conduct the occasional Shabbat service, the worshipers gather at the home of one woman - who also hosts the entire community for the Passover seder, said Bernstein, whose wife, Sandie, also made the trip.

Yet Cienfuegos's Jews are open about being Jewish and want to learn more about the religion they married or were born into, Bernstein said.

Their education began the first evening the two communities met. In the lobby of the Union Hotel, where the Americans stayed for their three days in Cienfuegos (the longest a Jewish-American group ever had spent there) they taught the Cubans an Israeli dance and the meaning behind some objects used in worship and celebrations, Zar-Kessler said.

Money and in-kind donations of as much as $5,000 from Congregation Beth El made it possible to give the Cubans ritual objects, including menorahs and braided Havdalah candles, as well as books from which to learn Hebrew and the story of Passover, Zar-Kessler said.

''It really was a substantial amount of materials to help get them started,'' said Martin Brauer.

While a menorah was familiar to most in Cienfuegos, many had never seen the braided candle, traditionally burned at the close of Shabbat. In fact, so scant was their prior Jewish education that many were unfamiliar with the Ten Commandments, said Shari Zar-Kessler, 14, who joined her parents, Arnold and Lorel, on the trip. She was one of two teens in the group.

The group also brought medicines and other items difficult to obtain in Cuba, and gave the Cubans milk money for schoolchildren.

Teaching about Judaism wasn't the only activity the Americans had planned for their counterparts in Cienfuegos. They talked about their professions, ate at local restaurants, and took the Cubans on day trips - a novelty for most. Some had never been more than two hours outside Cienfuegos.

Whether engineer, dentist, or truck driver, nearly every professional in Cuba earns the same wage, one that barely affords food, let alone vacation, said Arnold Zar-Kessler. Like the other Americans, he said, he was stunned by the level of deprivation. Even Jane Zion Brauer, 48, who has traveled to Gaza, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other extremely poor areas, said she wondered how the Cubans she met are able to get by.

''I think we were left with questions. I mean, how are these people surviving?'' she asked. ''We couldn't even buy bread.''

Logistically unable to provide for the Jews of Cienfuegos on a daily basis, the Americans pledged to stay in touch and help them realize two long-term goals: to buy land for a synagogue and to establish a Jewish cemetery, the closest one now being a three-hour drive from town.

''We made the first step in establishing a sister-congregation relationship,'' Arnold Zar-Kessler said. ''I'm very excited and enthused about this. We got to see people who, through it all, maintained a commitment to their identity.''

This story ran on page 02 of The Boston Globe's Globe West section on 3/8/2001.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company


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