My New Jewish Heroes

Before I left for Cuba on the Women’s Philanthropy Major Gifts Mission, I was sure that I would have weeks of columns to write that would simply roll off my fingers and onto the page. I was correct – I have weeks of columns, but they are not coming to me easily. We met true Jewish heroes whose stories I want to recount and do them justice; we spent hours trying to piece together what life is really like for the people we were meeting and it’s hard to tell that story for many reasons; and the experience so filled my heart and mind that I almost don’t know where to start.

I’m going to begin with the women I think of as the pillars of the Patronato. The Patronato was built at the height of the Jewish population in Havana. As the Jewish community prospered and grew in the 1940’s and 50’s, families moved from Old Havana to a more fashionable area called Vedado. The Patronato was built in Vedado and served both as a synagogue and as a community center. If you know someone who has been to Cuba through a federation mission or a synagogue trip, they have been to the Patronato; although there are two other synagogues in Havana, this is the heart of Jewish Havana.

We first heard about the Patronato from Raquel Scheck. Raquel spoke to our mission the night before we left, at a beautiful dinner hosted by Julie Russin Bercow, my great and dear friend, who is the president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Women’s Department. Raquel related the story of her life as a young Jewish girl growing up in Havana in the late 1940s and 50s. The Patronato was at the center of her life, not just for religious services, but for dances, youth group and simply seeing friends. Raquel was 16 at the time of the Revolution. She had led a sheltered, quiet life up to this time. When her family was told that they should send Raquel to Miami in order to avoid her being sent to the countryside for “reeducation,” her life was turned upside down. Within two weeks, she was in Miami, speaking no English and with very little family. With the support of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – the same HIAS that helped so many of our grandparents when they arrived in the United States – and with her own hard work and determination, Raquel began to make her own way, finding employment and education. She met a New Yorker transplanted to Miami, Michael Scheck and they were married, but without her parents, who were still in Cuba. In fact, because Raquel was only 18, HIAS had to approve of Michael! Raquel’s parents finally arrived in Miami the day before she gave birth to her first child. Raquel and Michael have gone on to have a total of four children, all leaders in the Jewish community (their son Steven is co-chair elect of National Young Leadership Cabinet), and Raquel and Michael are generous leaders in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. As I related last week, since the revival of the Jewish community in Cuba starting in 1992, the Patronato has been restored and it was the Schecks who donated the furnishings for the new youth lounge at the Patronato.

We met another pillar of the Patronato at lunch on Friday of our visit. Rosa Behar is a gastroenterologist who, along with her daughter Rebecca, established the pharmacy at the Patronato. The pharmacy is stocked because the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee informs missions and groups who are planning on coming to Cuba about the needs; our group brought twenty or so suitcases filled with medical supplies – it’s Rosa who keeps the Joint informed! Rosa was actually born in France, where her father was studying medicine. When the specter of war began to loom in 1939, the young family returned to Cuba before Rosa’s father could finish his degree. This experience in turn influenced Rosa, who didn’t leave Cuba after the Revolution for fear of not completing her medical studies. Rosa didn’t just stay to have a career and a family. Like Jewish women all over the world in small communities, she has done just about everything to keep her community thriving. She is the immediate past president of the Jewish Women’s Association (somewhat like a temple sisterhood, but it is for all of the Jewish women of Havana), she is president of Hadassah Cuba and still runs the pharmacy, even though she is now semi-retired from medicine. If we have any idea how many Jews are in Cuba today, it is mostly due to Rosa, who runs a medical census every other year when the Jews of Cuba come to Havana to pick up their Passover matzah. And here’s the “it’s a small Jewish world” part of the story – Rosa’s daughter Rebecca made aliyah to Israel last year and lives in Ra’anana, one of MetroWest’s partner cities in Israel!

We met another woman at lunch that day, Rosa’s junior counterpart, Marlen Prinstein. Marlen is the current president of the Women’s Association. She also is one of the leaders of Friday night services, leads and teaches two Israeli dance troupes (one for adults and one for teens) and also teaches in the Sunday School. Like many women we met in Cuba, Marlen is a Jew by choice and she inspired all of us to continue to choose our Judaism when we returned home. Her joy and skill in leading services on Friday night was palpable. And after havdalah on Saturday night, she put both Israeli dance troupes -- and us -- through our paces with infectious enthusiasm. Marlen is the embodiment of the new Jewish Cuba – seeking out the beauty of Judaism and sharing it with others in a warm and welcoming way that is hard to resist.

And then something I’ve been waiting to do for quite some time – we met Adela Dworin. Adela is the president of the Jewish community in Cuba; I’ve heard of Adela for many years because she is the cousin of a dear friend and although I heard Adela speak when she came to South Orange in 1998, I didn’t really get to meet her, nor did I really understand how much she has done to keep the Jewish community in Cuba alive. Adela was planning on a career in law before the Revolution; when this became impossible after her father’s factory was appropriated by the Castro government, she became the librarian at the community library housed at the Patronato, preserving the stories and history of the community even as it was dwindling. After the death of Dr. Jose’ Miller, Adela became the president of the Patronato and the Jewish community. We sat and spoke with Adela for about an hour – she spoke without a note, telling us the story of the community and her own life. She was inspiring yet down to earth. It was Adela who invited Fidel to the Patronato – she was at a meeting Castro called for about 60 religious leaders and she asked him why he had never visited the Jewish community. He replied that he had never been asked, so Adela did the asking – and he came, unannounced, to a Hanukah celebration! Adela is one of those women who make you want to stand up straighter and speak in full sentences; you can see how people find it hard to say “no” to her. She reiterated what we had already heard and would hear again, that without the JDC and “brothers and sisters who care about Jewish community,” there would be no Jewish life in Cuba today. She told us that it was inspirational to the whole community that knowing that we care about them gives them strength. To us, sitting around the table with Adela, it was clear who the real inspiration and the real tower of strength was.

These four women are only a part of the story, but they are a significant part of what holds up the community. And all four of them have made devotion to the Jewish community a real choice in their lives, with dedication, love and pride. Raquel, Rosa, Marlen and Adela are some of my new Jewish heroes; they will be in my heart for years to come.

Wishing you an inspiring week,
Leslie

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