Monday, December 31, 2012

JDC Programs in Cuba 2012


In the 20 years since the return to Cuba, JDC has worked to ensure that the Jewish Community’s welfare, cultural and religious needs are met while developing young leaders who will secure a self-sustaining future.  We thank Jewish Federations across North America for their ongoing and unwavering support in continuing to build a lasting Jewish future for this small, but vibrant Jewish community.  

Shabbat Chicken Dinner Program
The Shabbat Chicken Dinner Program continues to be one of the most important projects in the Cuban Jewish Community; not only for the valuable experience of bringing members of the community together to share in celebrating Shabbat, but also for the important nutritional protein intake that this meal provides for most congregants. Food shortages and the government rationing system make this weekly meal key to the health of more at-risk children and elderly citizens.

The Chicken Dinner Program operates in all five synagogues across the country, serving more than 350 people every Friday night.

Highlight: Due to the success of the Shabbat Chicken Dinner Program on Friday nights, it was extended in 2012 to include Saturday lunch after Shacharit (morning) services. In Cuba, more congregants attend services on Saturday morning than on Friday evening.

Currently the Shabbat lunches serve 400 people throughout the island, not just in Havana.

Transportation program
Transportation in Cuba is inconsistent and unreliable and makes ease of travel a country-wide issue. The members of the Jewish Community live in a wide-spread area so transportation is a critical component to JDC’s work in Cuba.  Providing reliable transportation to members of the Jewish Community is a key piece to the success of any activity that the community organizes because, for many, JDC provided transportation is the only way they are able to access these events.

In order to bring the community together to engage in Jewish events and activities, JDC continues developing a network of transportation for the following programs:

·         Sunday School: JDC rents four large buses to pick up and return the students of the Sunday School to locations near their homes.  Busing is provided for 200 people every Sunday.

·         Havdalah – Chagim – Age-Group Social Activities: At the conclusion of all community events, celebrations, and programs, JDC rents vans to return community members to their homes.  The number of people served varies based on the activity and ranges from smaller activities of 40 people to larger gatherings of 200 people.

·         Trips to/from the provinces: The seven communities outside Havana have regularly scheduled visits with JDC’s representatives, as well as regular meetings with Jewish education tutors from Havana who visit their assigned community every three months. The purpose of these visits is both to organize Jewish educational and recreational activities in the peripheral communities, and to create and sustain connections within the Jewish Community as a whole.

In 2013, six children from the provinces will go up to the Torah to celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  To help them prepare for this important rite of passage, JDC provides transportation for these young people to travel to either Havana or the closest synagogue were they have the opportunity to practice their Parasha reading and learn about how the ceremony will be conducted. 

JDC also provides transportation for members of peripheral communities to participate in nation-wide Jewish communal programming.  Programs in 2012 include:

o        National Hebrew Seminar in May –  15 participants from the provinces
o        National Rikkudim Seminar for Israeli dancing held in October – 8 participants from the provinces
o        National Adults Summer Camp held in December – 50 participants from the provinces

·         Social Assistance Program (Kesher): JDC provides transportation to the organizers and volunteers of the Kesher social assistance program when carrying out the scheduled visits to disadvantaged community members. 20 members of the Community receive regular monthly visits from Kesher volunteers (more details on the Kesher program below).

Highlight: As of September, JDC began providing financial support for transportation to the Senior Center.  The Senior Center is based at the Sephardic Center in Havana and holds activities for the elderly four days a week.  30 members of Havana’s Jewish Community participate regularly in the Center’s programming.

It is important to stress the incomparable value of renting vans and buses to support JDC’s programs and activities instead of allocating donations for the purchase of private vehicles to a specific synagogue. 

Visiting Rabbis
For the past 22 years, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler from Santiago, Chile has visited and conducted religious ceremonies and services for the Jewish Community of Cuba.  In 2012, Rabbi Szteinhendler traveled to Cuba every two months continuing his important and vital work providing spiritual guidance through religious service training, coordinating the Conversion Course, and supervising the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Program.  His unwavering and continuous support remains integral to the Community as a whole.

Highlight:  In December 2012, Rabbi Szteinhendler was accompanied by two other Rabbis to convene the Beit Din (religious court) in Havana as part of the conclusion of a successful Conversion Course for 80 new members of the Jewish community.  Rabbi Szteinhendler also officiated at the wonderful simcha of the marriage of 40 Jewish couples in one night!

Jewish Education Programs
The goal of JDC’s Jewish educational programs twofold: to enhance the religious education of the Jews of Cuba and to strengthen the social, cultural, and spiritual life of the Community. These educational programs are a vital connection among the Jewish communities of the island and to the broader global Jewish Community.

All JDC supported Jewish educational programs aim to strengthen and empower local leaders to shape a meaningful Jewish experience for and with their own communities.  Each of the Jewish Communities on the island has a local coordinator for every Jewish educational program.   The coordinators work alongside the JDC representatives in the development and building of that particular program.

·         Religious Service Training: There are no Rabbis in Cuba.  In order to keep the synagogues open and functioning, it is necessary to train members of the community to lead services for Shabbat and the holidays.  Fifteen leaders of the Jewish Community participate in weekly classes to train and build their skills and knowledge of Jewish liturgy.

Highlight: In November, the Jewish Community celebrated the 5th birthday of the Shaharito and Kabbalito! The Shaharito and Kabbalito are special services on Friday night and Saturday morning for the younger children of the Jewish Community. JDC’s representatives worked with teens and young adult members of the Community to train them in leading religious services specially designed for children.  Each week the children sing Shabbat songs and participate in various workshops in the small chapel of the Patronato synagogue in Havana, while their parents and relatives pray in the main sanctuary.  Over 20 children participate in both the Shaharito and Kabbalito every week.

·         Machón Albert Einstein:  In Cuba, the only formal Jewish education center is Machón Albert Einstein Sunday School in Havana. The school has its own principal and staff of teachers.  Every Sunday, more than 100 children and 80 adults meet for breakfast (supported by JDC) and then head off to their classrooms to participate in classes on Jewish History, Hebrew, Jewish Traditions, Religion, etc.

o        Teacher Training Program:  Every week the JDC representatives hold classes for the Sunday School teachers to further their own education about their Jewish heritage, as well as to build and hone their teaching skills. 
o        Machón in the provinces: Today, Jews in four of the seven peripheral communities meet twice a month on Sundays to learn about Judaism.  50 members of the Community participate regularly in these classes. 
o        National Hebrew Seminar: In May 2012, the first National Hebrew Seminar was held in Havana, Cuba.  Designed for members of the Cuban Jewish Community who have the important role of Hebrew teacher, the week-long seminar was led by a former JDC Cuba representative who traveled to Cuba especially for this purpose.  25 participants from all over the island took part in the seminar and were divided into two groups determined by their level of Hebrew knowledge.

Highlight: After last year’s phenomenal success, JDC’s representatives planned and held the second Summer Camp for children between the ages of 8 and 12 in August 2012.  This year’s program lasted for two nights, adding an extra day to the overall experience. 35 children enjoyed learning about “Eretz Israel” (which was also the camp name) while enjoying time outdoors in nature.  Activities included Israeli folk dancing, games and activities about the history of Israel, learning about famous Israelis and contemporary news of the country, a treasure hunt, a giant puzzle of the map of Israel, and a “game show” about Israel’s leaders, among many other recreational and educational activities designed specifically for this age group.

·         Age-Based Programming: Working with local group leaders, the JDC representatives develop informal educational activities for various age groups designed both to provide opportunities for social interaction with their peers and to strengthen Jewish identity. There are three different age-based groups who meet regularly to take part in Judaic, cultural, and recreational programs. For each gathering, JDC sponsors both snacks and transportation. 

o        Youth Group Maccabi: The Youth Group Maccabi, with 50 members between the ages of 13 and 29, meets every Tuesday and Saturday to play sports, practice Israeli dances, and take part in organized peulot (informal educational activities with a Jewish focus). The members of the Youth Group Maccabi continue to emerge as local leaders and are among the strongest pillars of the Cuban Jewish community today.

§         For the past five years, JDC has sponsored an exchange between the Cuban Maccabi madrichim and ten madrichim from Maccabi Argentina each January. From January 7-16 2013, the madrichim from Argentina will travel to Cuba for this year’s exchange.

Highlight: This October marked the first seminar for the eight Cuban madrichim. They will meet twice each year to plan youth group activities for the whole year. 

o         Adults Group - Guesher:  Guesher, the social group for adults, has 100 members between the ages of 30 and 59.  Guesher members meet once a month for a variety of cultural and recreational activities.

Highlight: For the first time, Guesher planned and held a national camp in December for Jewish adults, with 150 participants from all over the island.  It was a wonderful and important opportunity to gather people from all the provinces and create a valuable communal experience.  The goal and focus of the camp was to strengthen the bonds among this key age group, while reaffirming their Jewish identity.

This three-day shabbaton took place in the beach area of Tarará, just east of Havana.  Participants shared Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, Shacharit services on Saturday morning, and Torah study in a special and unique atmosphere.  The camp concluded with a very special Havdalah ceremony on the beach on Saturday night.

o        Senior Citizens Group - Simchá:  The Simchá group, with 100 members over the age of 60, meets monthly to socialize and participate in special cultural and recreational activities.  In addition to these monthly meetings, Simchá members also get together for a weekly literature club, physical training classes, arts and crafts workshops, and a Rikkudim (dance) group. Twenty people participate in each of these activities on a weekly basis.

Highlight: In September the Rikkudim workshop began incorporating an hour of Tai Chi training, where participants can move and stretch, improving their posture and helping to create a healthy connection between their bodies and their minds.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Program
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Program began in 2002 and has come to have very special meaning in Cuba – as the symbol of the rebirth and renewal for the Jewish Community.

In addition to its regular class schedule, the Sunday School is responsible for educating children of Bar and Bat Mitzvah age for this important rite of passage.  Each child receives a special study book created by JDC and is assigned a tutor to help him or her prepare for the ceremony. The children meet weekly with their tutors to practice their Torah portion reading.

In 2012 – 2013, eleven children will celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvah:
o        5 children from Havana
o        2 children from Guantanamo
o        2 children from Camaguey
o        1 child from Cienfuegos
o        1 child from Santa Clara

·         For the children of Havana: The Bar/Bat Mitzvah course consists of 20 classes, held every Saturday morning following Shacharit services. They meet as a group and follow a curriculum designed and organized by the Sunday School faculty. The teachers rotate for each subject, covering a variety of topics.

·         For the children in the provinces:  A special tutoring program was devised to ensure that Bar and Bat Mitzvah children are fully prepared.  Trained tutors travel to the provinces every three months (see details on the tutoring program below) to work one-on-one with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah students. The children are also invited, along with an adult family member, to travel to Havana to observe a Bar or Bat Mitzvah so they may learn from the experience and know what to expect for their own ceremony.

To commemorate their hard work and dedication, JDC sponsors a community celebration to honor the newest member of the Cuban Jewish Community. There is a special Havdalah ceremony and a traditional candle lighting.

Highlight: Some children from the provinces prefer to hold their Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Havana rather than in their home communities. JDC’s representatives work directly with the families and assist with all the arrangements for the ceremony and for the family travel to Havana.  

In most cases, children decide to hold the ceremony in their own hometowns.  In fact, this year the Jewish community of Guantanamo celebrated its first two Bat Mitzvahs in December!

Tutoring Program
Every three months, teams consisting of two tutors travel from Havana to the smaller communities throughout the island to implement Jewish cultural seminars and activities.  Each team is assigned a specific province.  In 2012, the teams visited their provinces a total of four times.   The programs and activities included: Rikkudim (dance) classes, Bar & Bat Mitzvah training, Jewish holiday preparation, Parashiot (Torah portion) debates, various age-focused group activities, Hebrew classes, and other educational opportunities and programs.

In addition to their visits, the entire tutoring team meets as a group every four months for an evaluation session, to share ideas, and to organize future visits and activities in the provinces.

Highlight: In 2012, for the first time a pair of tutors from peripheral communities (Sancti Spíritus and Santiago de Cuba) joined the team of tutors!

Rikkudim – Israeli Dance program
In Cuba, Israeli dance, or Rikkudim, has become an important channel for the Jewish Community to express their cultural heritage and to connect with the greater global Jewish community – and it is one that the community has joyfully embraced.  Each age group has a Rikkidum troupe:

o        The youth organization’s dance troupe is called Emuna.  Emuna has 30 dancers and rehearse twice a week.
o        The adult dance troupe is called Darkeinu and has 20 dancers. Darkeinu rehearses once a week after Shabbat morning Shacharit services.
o        The Senior Citizen dance group is called Jibukim. Twenty senior members of the community come together once a week in the morning to dance, stretch with Tai Chi exercises, and share lunch together.
o        The youngest troupe is the children´s group called Hai.  It is the spark of the Rikkudim Program. Over 50 children rehearse every week during their Sunday School workshop time.

JDC ensures that all dance rehearsals have proper air-conditioned rooms, sound equipment, new music, and a snack of cookies and cold beverages for the dancers and their teachers.

As in years past, in October, 2012, an Argentinean Rikkudim teacher came to Cuba to teach new dances to the teachers from both Havana and the provinces.  All fifteen Rikkudim leaders from across the island participated in this wonderful Rikkudim Seminar, along with 45 dancers of various ages from all the dance troupes, bringing together Israeli folk dancers from all over the island to learn and improve their dance skills.   

Highlight:  To commemorate the conclusion of the Rikkudim Seminar, the seminar participants, together with all the dance troupes, held Yom Ha Rikud (Day of Dance), a day of celebrating Israeli dance at a local beach.  

Summer Holiday Plan
During summer vacation (the months of July and August), JDC organizes a Holiday Plan for members of the Sunday School, congregants of the synagogues, and the youth organizations, to give community members the opportunity to relax, have fun, and learn, as well as to spend time as a community outside the school paradigm and/or synagogue space.

·         Sunday School: Students of the Sunday School had the opportunity to participate in excursions and activities in and outside the city of Havana within a Jewish communal environment. This year’s Summer Holiday Plan included:

o        Sundays at the Beach:  A private beach was rented for the entire Sunday school to spend a day at the beach with family and friends.  Transportation was provided by JDC with rented buses, and after a day of fun and a communal lunch, everyone returned home at 4:00 pm.   There were four beach excursions in total and they were all very successful, with 200 people participating on each Sunday trip. 

o        Wednesday Excursions for Younger Students:  Three educational city excursions in Havana were planned for students between the ages of 4 and 12 during the summer break. The children went with their Sunday School teachers to the Jose Marti Monument and Museum, the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, and had a private city tour through Old Havana, including a visit to the museum. The children were picked up at their homes in the morning, enjoyed the activity and had lunch together, and then returned home at 3:00 pm.  60 young students enjoyed these educational outings each Wednesday.

o        Outing for Older Students:  The Sunday School held a special outing to Varadero Beach for the older students of the Sunday School.  30 participants enjoyed a day having fun and relaxing at this beautiful beach area east of Havana, and participated in various recreational activities.

·         Youth Organization Outings: The youth organization also held their own summer holiday activities.  JDC sponsored peulot (informal Jewish educational activities), a variety of workshops, outings to the beach, a day at a local swimming pool, excursions to the outskirts of Havana, and parties.  45 young members of the Jewish community took part in each activity.

·         Patronato & Sephardic Center Outings:  JDC sponsored transportation and lunch for the congregants of both the Patronato and Sephardic Center synagogues. Four beach days were organized for congregants throughout the summer.

Challot Program
Every week, a rotating team of bakers from the Jewish Community gets together to bake challot for the communal Shabbat dinners.  The Women’s Organization is in charge of coordinating the volunteers and the baking schedule, and JDC provides the materials and ingredients. These challot are distributed to all the synagogues across the island.  For special cases, JDC works directly with Kesher, the social aid program to distribute this community-made bread to the homes of homebound elderly or ill members of the Community.

Highlight:  Once a month, all the bakers get together and prepare 200 challot for members of the Havana community to take home with them.

Judaic and Religious Supplies
All Judaic and religious items brought by JDC and Jewish Federation missions are distributed throughout the Jewish community of Cuba. Each president of the seven Jewish communities on the island work closely with the JDC representatives to organize the solicitation and distribution of needed religious supplies.  Religious supplies include candles for Shabbat, kippot, talitot, prayer books, etc.

Highlight:  To enhance communication across the island and bring the entire Jewish Community closer together, JDC sponsors Internet access and an email account for each of the seven Jewish Communities of Cuba.  To further enrich the Jewish community’s knowledge of Jewish traditions and the study of Jewish texts, in 2012 JDC began sending a weekly email to each of the Jewish Community presidents with teachings and commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, compiled by the Community´s Rabbi, Shmuel Szteinhendler.

Conversion Course
Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler supervises all religious aspects of the Community, including conversion to Judaism.  Under his guidance and coordination, JDC accepted the Community´s request to regulate the Conversion Course in Havana, meaning that conversion to Judaism will only be offered to those members of the community who have a Jewish spouse and lead a Jewish life in the home.  This year, 80 members of the Havana community will successfully complete the Conversion Course.  Each person accepted into the course received a recommendation from the president of the synagogue he/she and his/her family attend.

The Conversion Course is divided into several study units.  The subjects covered the fundamentals of Judaism, the Jewish calendar, teachings of the Torah, religious services, Jewish history, and the Jewish presence and history in Cuba. Weekly classes were overseen by Rabbi Szteinhendler, JDC’s representatives, and three of the most highly trained members of the Jewish Community. Throughout the nine month long course, participants were required to complete five examinations, culminating in the final examination by the Beit Din, the traditional Jewish court.  In December, Rabbi Szteinhendler traveled to Cuba with two additional Rabbis from Latin America to perform the Beit Din.

Highlight:  Over 30 Brit Milah have been performed and a very special Mikvah in the sea was held for all 80 converts before their examinations.  And to further make this a time of simcha and nachas for the Jewish community, Rabbi Szteinhendler officiated the marriages of 40 couples together under the chupah

March of the Living
In 2012, a delegation representing Cuba participated in the March of the Living program, traveling to Poland and Israel.  Five members of the community had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of this valuable program, to meet and connect with Jews from all over the world, and to experience the lessons of this important trip. 

The great privilege of being selected to travel outside the country and act as representatives for the Cuban Jewish community, comes with great responsibility.  Each of the five participants will be responsible for organizing and leading the upcoming Yom HaShoa commemoration ceremony for the Community.

Highlight: For the 2012 March of the Living, the Cuban delegation traveled with the delegation from Argentina, rather than the delegation from Canada, as on past trips. By traveling with participants from Argentina, there were no longer any challenges produced by the difference in language, allowing everyone, both Cuban and Argentinean, to fully connect and engage with each other and with the trip experience.

Kesher is a JDC sponsored program that works to address the community’s need for social aid and welfare. Disadvantaged members of the community receive regular visits to their homes by volunteers from the Jewish community and are provided with basic needs. The coordinators of the program, who have run Kesher for over ten years, continuously update the list of individuals and families living in underprivileged circumstances, and oversee the schedule of visits and the distribution of goods like chicken, extra milk, bed sheets, adult diapers, or any specific item needed.  This program currently serves 20 members of the Jewish community.

Highlight:  In 2012, JDC worked with the Community to implement an intergenerational component to the Kesher program. Working in pairs, members of both the youth organization and the senior citizen group go together to visit the homes of those in need of aid.  Each pair of volunteers is responsible for three or four Kesher clients. These visits are guaranteed to happen at a minimum of once per month.  This new intergenerational component not only ensures that the needs are met for all members of the Community, but also fosters and nurtures connections between the generations. 

Medications and Medical Supplies
All medications and supplies brought to Cuba by JDC and Jewish Federation community missions are given to the Community Pharmacy in Havana and distributed as needed throughout the island. Members of the Jewish community living in Havana are able to get their medications for free from the pharmacy with a medical prescription.  The doctor who oversees the pharmacy is in direct and continual communication with the presidents of all the peripheral communities about their needs, and arranges for the shipment of medicines and goods.

Highlight: Each month, the JDC representatives send a list to the New York headquarters with an updated medical needs and supplies list.  This list is then shared with participants on JDC and Jewish Federation missions.  Because of the pharmacy and the great generosity of mission participants who help keep the pharmacy fully supplied and equipped, the health of the Jewish Community has significantly improved.  As one example of this important and vital support from the Jewish Federation system, in May 2012, a mission from Boston provided immense help by bringing a desperately needed, expensive cancer treatment medication for a sick child in the Jewish Community. 

Special Food Shipments
Every year, through the generosity of the Jewish community of Canada, the Cuban Jewish community receives a container of Kosher for Passover food.  JDC works in partnership with the Canadian Jewish community and the Cuban Jewish community to ensure the distribution of these food baskets throughout the island.  

Hurricane Sandy Relief Update
On October 25, the island of Cuba was hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Though Havana was mostly spared the brunt of the storm, the city of Santiago de Cuba and the surrounding communities were hit hard, and the storm caused a lot of damage to both buildings and the city’s infrastructure.  Thankfully, no member of the Jewish community was injured.   

Working with local community leaders, JDC immediately began preparing a social assistance relief plan.  On the morning of October 29th the Jewish community’s Vice President, Mr. David Prinstein, the community´s Rabbi, Shmuel Szteinhendler (who travelled to the island as soon as he heard about the disaster), the community´s Social Assistance Program Director, Mr. Wilbert Wilson, and JDC representative in Cuba, Mr. Luciano Jaimovich travelled from Havana to Santiago de Cuba to assess the situation. Because the local airport in Santiago de Cuba was badly damaged, the only possible access to the city was by land, a 900 km drive that took 13 hours. Due to damage to the roads, a vehicle made for rocky terrain was rented and the four travelers packed the vehicle full of hope and help.

Coordinating with both JDC and Santiago de Cuba’s Jewish Community President, the Havana Jewish community organized the shipment of much needed food and supplies to the storm-ravaged area.  


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