Fresh off the plane from Havana, where he officiated at Jewish wedding ceremonies for 28 couples, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler eagerly recounts how his visits to that small but vibrant island community began. It was January 1992 – the first of the 115+ visits he has made to Cuba on JDC’s behalf.
He encountered a few young people, who seemed then to comprise “all of Cuban Jewish youth.” They were holding a faded hand-lettered sign proclaiming Am Israel BeCuba Hai – “The Jewish People in Cuba are Alive.”
In the two decades that followed, this Latin American rabbi came to see this phrase as his challenge, the driving force behind the mission entrusted to him by JDC—to teach, inspire, and conduct religious services and life-cycle celebrations for this resurgent Jewish community.
Now, on this latest visit, he and other rabbis came to formalize the Jewish status of a group of community members, following classes conducted by local teachers trained by JDC professionals “from the moment we started our program on the island.”
“Here I recover my dignity,” said one class participant. “I now am who I wish to be, proud to be Jewish.”
For so many community members, this was an assertion they could not comfortably make when religious restrictions were in place on the island (1960-1991).
“The millennial chain that binds one generation with another was being restored,” wrote the rabbi in describing the formal ceremonies that he and his colleagues conducted, “and we were a part of that historic moment.”
The community wide celebration that followed overflowed with emotion, but the excitement rose even higher as the weddings drew near. Seven ceremonies were held in one day at the Sephardic Hebrew Center, the first Jewish weddings to be celebrated there in 55 years.
The next day, 20 more weddings were scheduled to be held at the Patronato Synagogue, but then JDC’s resident representatives chose to add their names to the list. The couple had decided that they too wanted to “build their Jewish home” here, with community members standing in for far away family and friends.
“The great synagogue of the Patronato was decorated as never before,” related the rabbi. “There were special carpets, lights, some 450 guests, and a big chuppah (wedding canopy), which covered the 21 couples. Brides wore wedding dresses; men dressed in their finest clothes, some even in tuxedos. We could not believe our eyes. The ceremonies followed one after another, each one giving life to the words of the traditional Hebrew blessings.”
In the end, 28 chuppot were conducted, creating 28 new Jewish families. Pointing out that the Hebrew letters that represent the number 28 coincide with the word koach or strength, Rabbi Szteinhendler concluded that “strength is exactly what these families injected into community life and our people: strength, courage, vigor, and passion."
And in the spirit of the occasion, he added, “Lejaim! AM ISRAEL BECUBA HAI!"
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