Reflecting on Shabbat in Cuba
by Joey Becker
Shabbat: March 23, 2012
The first thing I notice is that the room has a high ceiling, maybe four times higher than standard. Next, I notice the front of the room. The bimah is in the center and then symmetrically mounted on each side of the bimah are two seven-branched menorahs, grand in size and bent out of strong dark metal. I wonder: how many bar mitzvahs have happened in this sanctuary? And how many families have taken pictures to preserve the memories? Finally, how many kids have stood, suit, tie and kippah, posing in front of a menorah, with the backdrop of wood paneled walls? The resemblance to my synagogue at home is not lost on me: the high ceiling, the white walls, the wood paneling, and most significantly, the menorah.
No longer a seventh grader preparing for my bar mitzvah in a suburb of Chicago, I am a freshman at Northwestern University, taking an ASB or Alternative Student Break trip to Cuba with JUF's Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University. ASB Trips have become a tradition at Northwestern. Instead of spending the break at home, lounging on the couch and sleeping in, students are given an opportunity to spend a week doing service work, primarily in different states and sometimes, in places like Cuba.
Hillel gives its students a unique service work opportunity in Cuba despite US restrictions on general travel because it sponsors students to bring aid to the Jewish community on a religious travel license.
The trip was 20 undergraduates strong. For the months leading up to the trip, we fundraised and collected aid, from medicine and clothes, to sporting equipment and Tupperware. Once in Cuba, we visited Jewish senior centers, the three temples in Havana, and we interacted with the Jewish youth group. For me, the most significant moment was the Shabbat service on Friday night.
In the synagogue, I admired the sanctuary and more specifically, the menorahs. I watched as the president of the youth group walked up to the bimah, followed by two other members. There is no full-time rabbi in Cuba, and as such, the members of the community lead the services. The president leans into the microphone and asks us to take out our prayer books. She asks first in Spanish, speaking to the Cuban congregants and then again in English, for our benefit.
There are so many similarities to my synagogue experience at home. The prayer books read from right to left. The Sh'ma and Aleinu are always my favorite prayers and I can barely keep up when I try and read the Hebrew. Like at home, the little kids run up to the front to sing Adon Olam. And like at home, when the service ends, we all wish each other a Shabbat Shalom.
I glance away from the prayer book in the middle of the service and I look around the sanctuary. There are no photos allowed on Shabbat, so I am trying to capture the scene for my memory. As I search the room with my eyes, my typical cynicism is absent. In the past, when sitting through services in another temple, I would look for differences: during Yom Kippur at Northwestern, the sermon was far different than the sermon I would have heard from my rabbi at home. For my cousin's bar mitzvah in Seattle, all the melodies were different. One prayer would be too slow and the other too fast. But in Cuba, I'm not critiquing the differences - my eyes rest again on one of the menorahs - and I am appreciating the similarities.
On this March 23, 2012, or 29th of Adar of the year 5772, Jews in Israel, the United States, Cuba, and all across the world, we all celebrated the coming of Shabbat. And when we break it down, we can see that we are all celebrating in pretty much the same way. Judaism is a global community, I realize, and not, as I thought before, a collection of local ones. JUF's Fiedler Hillel made this experience possible.