by Richard Fellman
Bev and Dick Fellman were among the 30 participants on the Mission to the Jewish community of Cuba sponsored by Temple Concord of Syracuse where their son, Daniel Fellman, is the Senior Rabbi. This is part one in a series of articles about their trip.
Kabbalat Shabbat in Santiago de Cuba
Our “Mission to Cuba” began with an early morning flight from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, the nation’s second largest city located near the eastern tip of the island facing the Caribbean. It is in the midst of the mountain range where Fidel Castro began the Revolution and the spot where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders battled in what Cubans call the Spanish, Cuban, American War of 1898.
When that war ended, the United States controlled Cuba as well as Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Through the years, all but Puerto Rico became independent. The United States kept a Naval Base on the very eastern tip of Cuba, east of the city of Guantanamo.
Santiago de Cuba, which was once Cuba’s capitol, boasts the city square, opposite one of its oldest churches. Here Fidel gave his first famous speech from the second floor balcony to a crowd a fraction of the size of crowds he would adress in years and speeches yet to come.
We made the usual tourist stops, checked into a four star hotel which was up to the standards of similarly rated hotels in any great city of the world. We had our first meal in Cuba on a veranda of a charming restaurant, and began our real mission… to visit Jews in Cuba, to meet and listen to them, and to bring them medical supplies which were in severely short supply.
Each participant on the mission was directed to bring with them 15 pounds of medical supplies or over-the-counter or prescription medicines. We had purchased 30 pounds of vitamins and planned to divide the bottles between our four main stops.
Our guide took us through an older section of Santiago de Cuba, over streets that were not only one way but which had room for our bus and one single lane of pedestrians, no more. To reach the front of the small synagogue we were to attend for Kabbalat Shabbat services, the driver had to back up and in to the narrow street.
Then the real story of Santiago de Cuba’s Jews began for us.
In 1939 the doors to their Temple were closed. They were not opened until 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union, Fidel’s patron, when religious policies in Cuba were changed and opened. Since no rabbis lived in Cuba, and even now none do, a rabbi visited Santiago de Cuba from Chile looking for the remnants of the city’s Jewish community.
What he found, and what remains to this day, is a congregation of less than 50 adults and a few children.
We met the congregation’s president, Emma Fariz-Levy, a member of one of the city’s oldest Jewish families, a family which came to Cuba from Turkey in the early days of World War I when Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, allied itself with Germany. Many Jews were unhappy and left Turkey, thus establishing the Sephardic synagogues of Cuba.
Today’s Santiago de Cuba congregation, however, is part of the Conservative Movement, begun throughout Latin America by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, who founded The Seminario Rabinio Latino Americano and trained rabbis for all of Latin America.
Soon after we arrived the small hall filled with the local men and women of the congregation.
The room’s floor was tile, in a pattern of brown and off- white. The walls were white stucco, all to keep the room cool in the hot weather of the long summer. The Bimah was two steps above the floor, and behind it was the Ark and the Eternal Light, flanked by a Star of David. The Siddur, in Hebrew and Spanish, stated that Rabbi Meyer was the “supervisor general.”
Mrs. Fariz-Levy, an energetic, small and poised woman, welcomed our group, told the story of her congregation, and explained that the Kabbalat Service would begin, with two young men taking turns in leading the prayers; one was her son, David Farin, and the other was Elias Mizrachi, his friend. They led the evening service, all in Hebrew and exactly like the Friday evening service at Beth El in Omaha.
Our Mission’s leader, Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord, Syracuse, New York, spoke at the end of the service on the weekly Biblical portion, “Va-Era,” where the Israelites, still slaves in Egypt, were being prepared for the Exodus by coming together as families for a meal of the lamb which was to be slaughtered.
“This Shabbat in Santiago de Cuba, Jews of Cuba and Jews of the United States have come together to celebrate the Sabbath in our traditional way,” he said. “This again demonstrates how we are all one family, Am Israel.”
After services, the chairs were removed, tables were put in place, and all sat down for a catered kosher meal we provided. Each portion was individually wrapped in a small container. The couple sitting opposite me took one meal, opened it, and shared it. The wife placed the second meal in her purse to take home. The meal: a whole but small fish, rice with black beans, and potato kugel.
We drove away in our luxury bus made in China to our four star hotel built for tourists from throughout the world but with few American guests.