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Reflecting on My Visit with Cuba's Jewish Community Just Before the Pandemic Began
When I returned from my sixth Jewish humanitarian mission to the island of Cuba at the beginning of February, little did I know that the entire world would be in quarantine only a month later. It now feels like a miracle that we were all able to be together.
I first visited the country in 2005 and wrote about my fifth visit in 2019. In the 15 years since I began visiting the island, I’ve witnessed incredible growth within the community, as well as the continued struggle and survival of those who live within the confines of Cuban society. I’ve also had the joy of seeing the young children I led in song grow into competent leaders of prayer and Torah, as well as proficient performers of Israeli and Cuban dance.
My Love Affair With Cuba
The story of the Jews of Cuba is all at once tragic and triumphant. The Jewish population before the Cuban Revolution in 1959 was 15,000. Jewish merchant communities came to the island from all over the world to find their fortunes in tobacco, rum, textiles, and sugar cane. They built magnificent synagogues: Beit Shalom, the Patronato Jewish Community Center, The Sephardic Synagogue, and Beit YaAkov, the Orthodox Synagogue, which houses a beautiful upstairs museum sanctuary.
Israel: My Foundation Of Faith
There are a lot of things we might disagree on when discussing the land of Israel.
Politically, socially and from a human rights perspective I don’t always agree with what’s going on in the government. I always tend to rely on my relationships with family and friends who live in Israel, delighting in what’s happening in their lives and supporting them in every way possible. Our homeland is a complicated and diverse place filled with wonderful sights, food, music, and culture and I’ll always be grateful for the strong foundation I have been gifted with my time there. Without my connection to Israel and her people I would not have two of the greatest blessings in my life: career and faith. I grew up in the southern San Juaquin Valley of Bakersfield, California which is an agricultural mecca and the center of the food basket of America. I loved gardening and backpacking and singing and playing guitar. My parents were founders of the Reform congregation there and I got my spark for music and faith from my teacher at camp, the late, great, Debbie Friedman. When I was 16 years old my parents sent me to Israel on the Kibbutz Aliyah summer work program for eight weeks. I lived on Kibbutz Enat near Petach Tikva. I worked weeding cotton fields, cleaning the kitchen, and traveling around the country.
That trip changed my life.
I fell in love with the land, culture, food, and music of Israel and made lifelong friends that summer. While I didn’t know Hebrew, my guitar did all the talking and I loved learning and sharing the Israeli and Yiddish folks songs I learned on the Kibbutz and busking folk music in the streets of Jerusalem. After that summer I made regular trips to Israel to visit my family and friends and decided to spend my junior year abroad studying at Hebrew University and the Ruben Academy of Music. My decision to study in Israel was largely motivated by my goal to apply to the Hebrew Union College—School of Sacred Music in New York City and I had to improve my Hebrew proficiency in order to do that.
My Love Affair with Cuba’s Jewish Community
The story of the Jews of Cuba is at once tragic and triumphant. Before the 1959 revolution, 15,000 Jews lived on the island, having immigrated there from all over the world to find their fortunes in tobacco, rum, textiles, and sugar cane. They built magnificent synagogues: Beit Shalom/The Patronato Jewish Community Center, the Sephardic Synagogue, and Beit Yaakov, the Orthodox synagogue that now houses a beautiful upstairs museum sanctuary. Most of the wealthiest Jews fled to the United States before the revolution and today, the island has roughly 1,000 Jewish souls.
When Fidel Castro visited the Patronato at Hanukkah and learned of the Maccabee rebels who fought for freedom, he allowed the Jewish community to practice Judaism within the Communist regime. For decades, the community struggled to keep its Jewish roots vibrant and alive with help from Jewish groups worldwide, including many Reform congregations whose members have visited over the last few decades.
Since 2001, B’nai B’rith International has brought crucial aid and humanitarian supplies to Jewish families in Cuba, helping provide a better way of life and when possible, the Joint Distribution Committee has provided rabbis and cantors to serve the community. With guidance and support from the many groups and individuals who assist this faithful, cultural mecca of Jewish life, Cuba’s Jewish community is once again, beginning to thrive, grow, and prosper.
My love affair with the Jewish community of Cuba began with my first mission to the country in 2005. When I arrived, I learned quickly that my guitar did all the talking. The reaction to my first concert at the Sephardic Synagogue brought tears and smiles to the elderly and young alike. Many were immigrants from Poland and the Yiddish songs I shared had not been heard since childhood! Their reaction sparked my personal mission to help the Jewish community of Cuba and I decided to record a CD of the songs I’d sung at that concert and donate the proceeds to help provide the community with basic necessities, including food, medicine, soap, dental supplies, clothes, and shoes. Since then, through additional concerts and humanitarian missions to Cuba, I have distributed Jewish books and CDs to all the Jewish families around the island.
Yes, There Are Jews in Eastern Uganda
Last summer, I was honored and humbled to meet Mugoya Shadrach Levi, a 29-year-old rabbinic student from Uganda, who was in the U.S. for three weeks to travel and study. Over dinner, Shadrach, as he is known, told my husband and me his story, which both shocked and captivated us.
Shadrach leads the Jewish Congregation of Namutumba, a community of 2,000 members that survives and thrives despite a years’-long famine in Uganda. When I asked him what he wanted for breakfast, he explained that he doesn’t usually eat breakfast – just a glass of tea – because the children had to be fed first, and maybe there would be rice or bananas for lunch or dinner.
No running water in the village of more than 11,000 people means the women must walk long distances to fill water jugs and carry them back on their heads, providing a small amount of water to bathe, clean clothes, and quench their thirst from the hot sun. Washing and laundry are done in a tub and cooking is done over an open fire. With very little solar or electric light, study is limited to daylight hours.
This post originally appeared on the blog of ReformJudaism.org.
SEDER K’RIAT HATORAH L’SHABBAT
Recently, while celebrating Shabbat at Beit Shalom, the Conservative Synagogue in Havana, Cuba, I was honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. After the Aliyah I moved around the reading table and was asked for my Hebrew name. A Mi Shebeirach was then chanted on my behalf, praying for my well being. After the sixth Aliyah had been chanted, a Mi Shebeirach was recited for a member of the community who was ill and his name inserted into a different healing version of the Mi Shebeirach This placement of the Mi Shebeirach after each Aliyah while the Torah is on the reading table is customary in most Orthodox and Conservative synagogues today.
A Healing Journey: First For Me, Now For Others
I first found my voice at a dying woman’s bedside during a unit of clinical pastoral education. I had been paged to the neurology ICU for a family struggling to say goodbye to their mother, who was in the final stages of brain cancer. When I asked her daughter to tell me about her mother, I learned that she loved music and had been the choir director and organist in their church for many years.
Instinctively, I asked if I might sing something to help soothe her mother’s spirit in this time of need. The first song that came to mind was “Balm in Gilead,” a gospel hymn I remembered singing in my high school choir. I spent the next two hours singing and praying with her family, using Jewish and other faiths’ musical traditions to help them let go and transition their mother’s spirit through a window of love and memory.
ACC Volunteer of the Month
In what capacity have you volunteered for the ACC?
I was on the board for ten years mainly working in the area of fund raising and finances. I was one of the co- editors of the ACC Lifecycle Manual, and I was also instrumental in commissioning the ACC Ketubah. Early on in my career, I co-chaired an ACC Convention in Houston, TX. Recently I’ve been on the ACC Website committee.
How did you get started with your Volunteer work? Did someone ask you?
I read an email that said the ACC was looking for Board Members. I volunteered and ended up staying for a decade. I always wanted to be involved in helping support those in leadership and a few of my closest friends have been leaders. When they asked, I always said yes!
Riding The Waves Of Change
It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. Most of us maintain a pretty regular schedule, eat according to plan and take comfort in the normalcy of our daily life rituals. The same applies to worship, which can sometimes get stuck in the sameness and familiarity that our clergy partners and congregants come to expect. Over the years I have consistently tried to ‘wake it up’ by creating special and specific opportunities for learning and prayer which don’t come across as threatening because they are presented up front as departures from the norm. I have also attempted to engage the younger generation by including them in these programs, encouraging them to bring me new materials and creating opportunities for them to engage in many different styles of prayer.
As a NFTY kid trained as a song leader to jump around and encourage singing it was a big leap for me to adapt to a more traditional Cantorial style as taught at HUC-JIR-DFSSM. After many years of ‘reigning it in’ I began to morph from the song leader to the Hazzan. After ordination, I began the process of combining the two styles to create singing congregations where I was not performing for but praying with my people. Over the years I’ve continued to adapt to current norms and incorporate new music and new styles of davvening into my practice. Recently I enrolled in the Davennen Leader Training Institute through the Aleph Renewal Movement. I had heard that this form of praying was innovative and inspiring and wanted to learn more. Through my studies at DLTI, I again had to adjust my stuck habits and familiar ways. I learned many amazing transformational techniques for ‘grabbing’ people from their heart center and journeying with them through prayer. Here are a but a few:
1) Frontal standing behind a podium creates space between me and the congregation. I have begun sitting on a stool or in a chair with just a music stand, usually facing or in connection with my clergy partner and the congregation. Also, setting up in the round, in an arc or with people facing one other creates community and decentralizes prayer to include everyone.
2) Prayer can be transformational if it is given time and space. That is: a prayer can go on as long as necessary for it to penetrate the soul and for Divine energy to flow. An arc is created from nothing to something and back to nothing.
3) Silence should always follow a deeply felt prayer in order for the prayer to settle. There doesn’t always need to be talking or filler in order for the service to flow.
4) Niggunim work to draw energy together and create deep kavannah. I always use them.
5) Nusach should always be used to weave together whatever prayer service we are doing, even if the nusach is unfamiliar to the congregation. They will come to understand that it is the glue that binds.
6) Speaking is as important as singing. The words we say as prayer leaders empower us, our congregation and our music. Develop your ‘prayer speak’ and you will expand your ‘prayer song.’
Some other techniques I’ve used over the years to innovate and inspire my congregation include:
1) Regularly (twice a year) bringing artists in to work with my choirs and band. We learn new music and present it in a non-threatening special Musical Shabbat which gives everyone an opportunity to learn and grow. Many of the songs we learn then ‘stick’ to be used in our regular prayer service.
2) Working with my students who attend camp to learn the songs that are trending and popular. That empowers them to teach and to inspire the other young people in the congregation as well as acting as role models for them.
3) Learning from other Cantor’s in my community who regularly attend Hava Nashira, Song Leader Boot camp and the North American Jewish Choral Festival to find out what is hot, trending and new. Since I don’t have time in my schedule to attend those conferences, I depend on them to help keep me in the loop.
4) Listen, listen, listen. I’m constantly listening to CD’s and alternate music by amazing groups like Nava Tehila and Beit T’filat Israeli as well as young up and coming artists artists to find new music. If I get one song from a CD it is worth the cost of the download. I also regularly go back and listen to the Shabbat Anthologies for something I might have missed to try something new.
5) Write what needs to be written. If there is a prayer that I am searching for that I can’t find, I either write a version myself or find someone else who might be willing to do so. There are so many talented people out there who are creating new music for worship all the time that there is always an opportunity to find something new and inspirational.
6) Make time for planning prayer. So many times we are rushing and grabbing what is familiar because it takes less time. Build worship into your clergy teams schedule to give the proper thought and get your creative juices flowing. It is time well spent.
Okay, so after reading this you’re thinking that I’m constantly changing music and trying new things. Wrong. Two out of four Shabbatot in my congregation are generally mainstream, what people expect to hear or what we would term: traditional. The other two Shabbatot (Friday nights) I try to introduce a theme, something new-ish or a few new tunes which I want to promote and make part of the mainstream. Repetition is the only way to breed familiarity and I do repeat many of the new melodies over and over again until everyone is singing them. Then I move on to something new and repeat it until it becomes familiar.
My prayer for all of us is that we open our hearts to the possibility of change. While we are the progenitors of tradition we are also the innovators of the future. Without our dreams, insights, artistry and courage the waves will not ever make it to shore. It is our responsibility to urge them onto the beach where they will crash and create the music that nurtures the soul of our people.
Yoga program gives spiritual connection to Judaism
Sixty women in leotards gathered at Temple Dor Dorim in Weston on a recent Tuesday evening to experience a different kind of spiritual connection to Judaism.
Yoga instructor and cantor Lisa Levine of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, led the group through Yoga Shalom, which she said is a “journey of healing and a journey of revival,” and told them they will be “looking at prayer and worship a different way.” They will unlock feelings, memories and emotions, she said. “We’re going to feel the prayer inside.”
A Spiritual and Physical Journey
Yoga Shalom is a charming book recently released by the URJ Press. Introduced as ‘a spiritual and physical journey, guided by a sequence of traditional Hebrew morning prayers’, it completely delivers on promise. Lisa Levine has produced a superb resource.
The brainchild of Cantor Lisa Levine, Yoga Shalom is the only book of its kind to give a comprehensive overview of the traditional Sabbath service with a selection of yoga postures and gentle teachings to inspire practitioners. A good selection of photographs accompanies the lessons, showing yoga students of all ages, making this an excellent choice for anyone looking for ways to embody Jewish prayer.
Worship service for body and soul
Reform Judaism, as its name implies, is founded on the belief that Judaism must constantly evolve, adapt and reform in order to remain viable and survive in an ever-changing world.
Reform synagogues, as a result, tend to approach the daily practice of Judaism and holiday and Sabbath observance differently and much more liberally than their Conservative and Orthodox counterparts.
This different approach is evident in most of the services and programs offered at Temple Shalom, Winnipeg’s only Reform congregation. One such program is Yoga Shalom, a unique and unconventional Saturday-morning Sabbath activity.
From Rabbi Myriam Klotz
Yoga Shalom is wonderful! It is a strong and unique contribution to this growing body of work. I think you have made the prayers accessible, have integrated the yoga really well, and I love the questions for thought and intention formation that you included. Also I think it works so well to have included modifications and advanced options with suggested postures. As for production, it is so well done! To include both print photos, as well as the music CD and the DVD~terrific! May you (and this creation) go from strength to strength!
Transformation through Yoga
I was lying on my back supported by a bolster, arms spread to the side and my feet together with knees floating apart in supported supine butterfly pose. My eyes were closed, and I was trying to quiet my mind from the hundred things on my to do list. The voice of my yoga teacher floated around me, reminding me that the opening of my heart and slowing of my breath would promote the release of stress, judgments, grief, and other emotions or burdens that might be troubling me. As I began to release and let go of all the chatter inside my head, I had a profound realization.
Humans are, in many ways, like butterflies. We are transformed: by birth, by death, by stress and illness, by hope and by triumph. We watch our children transform into adults, our parents transform into children. It is through these life stages that we ourselves change, morph and transform into mature adults.
Also like the caterpillar, sometimes we form a hard exterior to cocoon, or protect us from all the things in life that are difficult for us to accept. Our mind takes over our body and convinces us that we are protecting ourselves for our own good. Only when we begin listening to our bodies and our spirits, will the cocoon we’ve woven so lightly around us break apart and the truths that preside within us emerge.