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2016-11-04 digital edition

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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


November 4, 2016  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Who among us would be our community’s savior?

Emilie Socash

“You have to give these little freedoms, you see, to maintain power.”

The words were spoken by Rabbi Jacob Berezniak while I sat in the Adat Israel synagogue in Havana. We were in a basement room that had pews at least 100 years old, an ark nestled in the corner, the ohr l’atid hanging awkwardly from an acoustic ceiling. A recently renovated divider separated what otherwise would be a multipurpose space into a side for men and women for services. At this moment, several women busied themselves on the opposite side laying out gift shop items, hoping that the visitors from Pinellas County would purchase something.

Berezniak was specifically referencing that he is one of very few Cubans allowed to apply for the license to slaughter a cow. All cattle on the island belong to the government. Therefore, to slaughter a cow is equivalent to a crime against the state. The punishment? Twenty years in prison.

“How many years in prison for killing a man?” One of our group asked.


It’s an amazing experience to be enveloped in the environment that he and his congregants live within each day. While anti-Semitism is all but nonexistent throughout Cuba, general human oppression makes up for it in spades.

Over at the Patronato, we heard about the Jewish center’s celebrity visitors: the Pope, Fidel Castro, Madonna, and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. A grabbag to be sure, and details were offered about who was the most (and least) generous. The center’s president, Adela Dworin, joked with us that she had only served as president for 10 years; her predecessor served for 30. She therefore had 20 years left on her “sentence.”

Will Greenberg, co-chair of the mission efforts, tugged at my elbow. Leaning in close, he asked, “Who among us would have the strength of Adela in being our community’s savior?”

You see, the Jewish community in Cuba is on the decline. With an average birth rate of 1.4 in Cuba at large, and the prospect of their children moving to Israel with support of various programs, the thriving Jewish presence is terribly energetic, despite its dwindling numbers. I had to pause when Will asked this of me, because I don’t know how Adela, or any of the other community leaders we met, do it.

One of the biggest takeaways was the way that the community works together. The Orthodox community schedules their Friday night services early enough so that attendees can also attend the Reform service – and get meals and support at each. (“But what do people do about men and women sitting together?” one of my group asked of Jacob. “Here they sit apart, there they sit together. Nobody worries,” he said.)

Mayra Levy at the Sephardic Center spoke openly about Jewish identity, telling us that when we attend services, we might be surprised at how “not Jewish” most of the attendees look. It was true: I glanced over two days later down my row, and saw a family that I would never have expected to be at services participating fully. Mayra said that if a family or person wished to identify as Jewish it was good enough. “We accept everyone, we don’t waste time asking questions.” And at that service on Friday night, at least 200 individuals were there, knowing the prayers and the order of the service better than me.

Of those in attendance, about 20 teens closed out the Friday night, rushing to the bimah, their funky glasses and trendy outfits a blur as they energetically sat and lounged. Two young men led the bulk of the service, and these teens also regaled us with their wild dance moves the next night as we celebrated Havdalah. These kids, with belly-baring shirts and sagging jeans, short skirts and shaggy haircuts, brought energy and life to a space that was missing ceiling tiles over the entire bimah and had a hodgepodge collection of tallit.

“We take them all,” Adela confirmed.

There are times when we say that Jewish identity (or Judaism, if we want to be specifically religious) saves people. But in Cuba, I have to believe that the people have saved Jewish identity. For some, it’s for getting a better meal on a Friday night; for others its collecting their kids together for dance troupes and summer camps; yet others find solace in belonging to something caring and welcoming. There are no questions, there are no judgments, there is only an open tent welcoming all who wish to affiliate, attend, show up, eat, or participate.

Who among us has the strength to save our community? Who among us can afford not to act?

At the time of year when our Federation has just opened its Annual Campaign, I find myself thinking of the Adelas and Mayras and Simons of our own world: the lay and professional leadership who take on the big jobs of cultivating Jewish identity. They certainly do a very fine job of creating programs that touch all of us, whether throughout the year or in times of need, and beyond their own fundraising they assuredly rely on a strong partnership with the Federation in their subsistence and growth.

Over the summer, I highlighted five areas in which Federation changes our community: Israel education and advocacy; community education, partnership, and planning; information resource and referral; building Jewish identity and culture; innovative community-building; programs on the ground in Israel and in Jewish communities around the globe; and caring for our most vulnerable. I encourage you to take a moment now to visit your Federation online and make your commitment to the Annual Campaign. This single act will help us continue to cherish Jewish identity.

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