One of the things that ties Jews together all over the world, and which has always bound us as a people is our obedience to the commandment “Zachor” – to remember – to remember that we were all slaves in Egypt, to remember the widow and the orphan, and to remember the martyrs of our people. This week marked the observance of Yom HaShoah, consecrated to the memory of the six million men, women and children killed in the Holocaust, and so we remember this also.
The strength of the bond of remembrance was brought to me again during the Women’s Philanthropy Mission to Cuba last month. We traveled outside Havana, four hours by bus, to the town of Santa Clara. There we met with representatives from the small Jewish communities of Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sanctu Spiritu. In total, these three communities number only about 100 Jews. Yet they have sent kids on Birthright Israel and on March of the Living. After years of not being able to practice Judaism openly, they have Friday night services in the homes of members of each community. All this is possible with the assistance and training from the JDC representatives who are there to support and nurture the rebirth of Jewish life.
We had already had an emotional and engaging few hours with these representatives when they accompanied us to the Santa Clara Jewish cemetery. We had been to the Ashkenazi cemetery in Havana earlier in our visit, which contains one of the oldest Holocaust memorials in the Western Hemisphere, dedicated in 1947. In Santa Clara, we visited one of the newest. David Tacher, who has been described correctly as “the Moses of Santa Clara” talked with us about how the memorial came into being and its symbolism. As you can see in the photo, David is standing near a powerful sculpture that captures both the train tracks that led only one way for so many and also the fist of strength that stands for “never again.” But what really mattered to David are the stones you see behind him. Speaking as beautifully and meaningfully as if he had been ordained as a rabbi, this man who has never been off his native island, reminded us that, like the stones of many shapes and colors, Jews of every part of European society were caught up and destroyed in the Holocaust and that we, all of us, are obligated to remember them and to value each other, Jews of every denomination and every spot on the globe. David had another lesson for us, however, which is that even in the act of remembering great tragedy, we should remember to celebrate the simple gift of being together. We were the first women’s mission ever to make a visit to Santa Clara and so we sang the Shehechayanu prayer of thanksgiving. Actually, we sang it – to the tune by the artist Debbie Friedman. Jews from these tiny Cuban communities and from one of the largest federations in North America, giving thanks and praise for reaching a moment together, to a tune relatively new to the world of Jewish prayer – if I wasn’t there, I might not have believed it.
So this is why I think Cuba is still resonating with me – because in yet another remote corner of the Jewish world (yet only 90 miles from our shores) we found a small but mighty community always ready to remember and always ready to celebrate the beauty of our shared heritage and our promise to the future.
In remembrance and in celebration –