Jewish sparks of life in Cuba touch visitors from Oakland

When Brenda Eskenazi learned the United States may relax travel restrictions to Cuba, she knew it was more important than ever to finally see the country where her father was born and raised.

“I have a feeling the influx of U.S. tourism is really going to change the quality of the island, and I wanted to see Cuba before that,” she said.

And so Eskenazi, along with her husband and her sister, joined a group of 34 Jews on a religious mission to Cuba from April 20 to 28, organized by Temple Sinai in Oakland and led by Rabbi Steven Chester.

Going to Cuba “has been a [personal] quest for a very long time,” said Eskenazi, a U.C. Berkeley public health professor and Oakland resident. “I wanted to better understand my roots, who I am and where I come from, and I wanted to see if I could find family.

“So when our rabbi decided to organize this trip, it seemed perfect. I really wanted to see the Jewish community, because my father had been a part of that.”

The travelers spent most of their time visiting Jewish communities in Havana and nearby towns. They brought Bibles in Spanish and Hebrew, mezuzahs, Judaic wall hangings and paintings. They also brought medications so the synagogue’s pharmacy, which is open to the entire community, would have adequate supplies in stock.

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Brenda Eskenazi (left) and Amitai Schwartz stand on the steps of the Patronato, Havana’s Jewish community center, during a recent mission to Cuba with Oakland’s Temple Sinai. photo/courtesy of eric lipsitt

One day, while eating lunch in the province of Villa Clara, Eskenazi sat down and introduced herself to the Cuban man sitting next to her.

“I’m Alberto Eskenazi,” he replied in Spanish.

“That was my father’s name,” she said.

The two traced back their family’s history and found that both had a great-grandfather named José Fintz who immigrated to Cuba from Turkey the same year.

“It sent chills down my spine knowing I had found in this far-off country this man who was probably related to me,” she said.

The April trip was Chester’s second visit to Cuba, but his first leading a mission. He went for the first time a year ago as a participant on a trip led by June Safran, founder of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission.

Safran’s Berkeley-based group has sought to build a bridge between the two cultures while also providing resources to the small Jewish community of about 1,500.

But she recently retired from leading Jewish missions to Cuba. The trips require plenty of paperwork and legal maneuvering, and once the government grants a religious group a license to conduct a mission, it’s good for two years.

Chester decided to pick up where Safran left off since the license was still valid through 2009. He announced the trip and opened it up to his congregation and to members’ friends or family.

“It is very moving for people to see a Jewish community that is so enthusiastic about being Jewish, and who work so hard to keep Judaism alive,” Chester said.

His group visited Havana’s two synagogues, neither of which has a rabbi. They also found smaller Jewish communities where there is no synagogue at all.

In Cienfuegos, for instance, Chester’s group met

with a family that had dedicated its small apartment to worship, learning and teaching the town’s 10 Jewish children, ages 5 to 14.

When trip participants asked the family why Judaism was of such significance to them, the mother answered, “Because we want to make sure our children know what it means to be Jewish,” Chester reported. He added, “It’s things like that that make you want to bring people to see how Jewish community once hanging by a thread is rebuilding, that there is a revival and excitement about being Jewish.”

For Eskenazi, seeing the Cuban Jewish community’s devotion was inspiring and illuminating.

Two weeks before she traveled to Cuba, she went to India on a work-related trip. While in Cochin, India, she saw a dying Jewish community made up of only a dozen or so Jews, all 60 and older, unaccompanied by young people to sustain them. Eskenazi was distraught.

Then in Cuba, she saw children singing Jewish songs in the streets and in synagogue.

“It was a beautiful moment, seeing children and knowing they represent the future,” she said. “They represent hope.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.