Bay Area Jews visit Cuban shul for first bar mitzvah in 20 years

American b'nai mitzvah are often characterized by lavish parties, new suits and requests for gifts of cash, CDs and computer games.

In Cuba — specifically Santiago de Cuba — coming-of-age ceremonies are simpler. And they occur less frequently.

Late last year, Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley conducted a b'nai mitzvah ceremony for two boys at the congregation's sister synagogue, Communidad Hebrea Hatikvah Santiago de Cuba.

It was the city's first bar mitzvah in nearly 20 years.

Forgoing suits and ties, cousins Robertico Novoa Bonne and Andresito Novoa Castiel approached the bimah in "clean shirts and new tallitot (prayer shawls)," Kelman said.

The entire 100-member Jewish community of Santiago de Cuba attended the event.

"I got the feeling of being a part of a community, all who are in love with these two kids," Kelman said.

Recognizing the Cuban community's practical and spiritual needs, Netivot Shalom adopted Hatikvah a little more than a year ago.

Santiago de Cuba's Jewish community has always paled in size to that of Havana. Its strength waned further with the onset of communism.

Most of the members with Jewish knowledge were old — many of them are immigrants from Poland and Turkey.

"When communism came in, religion went out," said June Safran, a member of Netivot Shalom and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "The Jewish community was small after the revolution. People didn't go to synagogue."

In 1960, not long after Fidel Castro came to power, the Jewish community of Santiago de Cuba lost its building. Thirty-five years later, with help from the JDC and the Jewish community of Havana, Santiago de Cuba's Jews got their synagogue back. A 1991 change in Cuban law enabled Communist Party members to acknowledge religious beliefs, enabling the community to return to its roots.

Led by Safran, Netivot Shalom members have visited the Cuban community twice — bringing everything from haggadot and prayerbooks to felt-tipped pens and basic toiletries.

In addition, Kelman and others have taught Torah to congregants.

Six Hatikvah members read Torah proficiently. They trained Robertico and Andresito for the b'nai mitzvah.

"The boys didn't go to Hebrew school. They learned by doing and being [Jewish]," Kelman said. "It was done with tremendous passion and love.

"They did great, just great."

A month before Kelman arrived, Andresito and Robertico celebrated a first b'nai mitzvah, conducted by a visiting rabbi from Chile. Kelman tutored them for their second service.

"The boys read Torah slowly but absolutely accurately," recalled Safran. "They had study sessions for two and a half hours. They quit only because Stu [Kelman] got tired."

Following a service of praying and singing — "so loudly the sound reverberated," Kelman said — the congregation hosted a modest kiddush (reception).

"That was a big event," Kelman said. The congregants "could barely afford the food for it."

In addition, Kelman presented Robertico and Andresito with gifts to mark their entry into the adult Jewish community.

Prior to the visit, Kelman asked the boys, via phone, what they would like. They said "tefillin."

Because tefillin are not worn on Shabbat, Kelman taught the young men how to use them during the next day's minyan. Kelman opened the lesson to all congregants.

Sunday's morning minyan — the congregation's first non-Shabbat minyan — boasted nearly 100.

Traveling with a few extra pairs of tefillin, Kelman handed them around for a demonstration. The last pair went to a woman.

"We put on tefillin, we went to the front of the synagogue and we davened," Kelman said. "At the end of the service I asked the woman, `Do you know what just happened?'

"`You are the first woman ever in the history of Cuba to put on tefillin.'

"She began shaking and crying, realizing what happened in those few minutes. She, the new b'nai mitzvah and the whole community put on tefillin," Kelman said.

"These are people coming back to Judaism with enthusiasm and passion."