Article republished courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Cuba Connection

Kevin Odegard
Special To The Star Tribune
January 15, 2005

A pleasant Caribbean breeze filled the large room, a Jewish sanctuary in Havana, where a Minneapolis rabbi stood and told the congregation and 22 Twin Cities visitors of her family's remarkable journey to freedom. In an astonishing convergence of Torah subject and true-life storytelling, Temple Israel Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman held a firm grip on her audience with the tale of her Russian grandfather's long and slightly detoured voyage to America.

Max Pasternak left Russia by ship in early 1920, at a time when the U.S. port-of-entry at Ellis Island in New York was temporarily closed for expansion and repairs. His ship was rerouted to Cuba. He stayed there for a few months and eventually joined his uncle's family in St. Louis, where his future bride was waiting.

Not long after Pasternak left Cuba, the U.S. borders were closed, and most of the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jews, along with a number of Sephardic (Mediterranean) Turkish Jews, about 17,000 people total, found themselves unexpectedly stranded in Cuba. Through four decades, most would remain there.

"If my grandfather was delayed, I would be a Cuban Jew," said Zimmerman, reflecting on her visit slightly more than a year ago to the Communist island nation on a humanitarian mission with members from her Reform congregation.

At Beth Shalom congregation in Havana, Zimmerman was invited to deliver the sermon at Shabbat morning services. Her message was based on the Torah reading, Genesis 33, the "Sedra Va Yezah," in which brothers Jacob and Esau are squabbling. She also spoke about Jacob's Ladder, the Tower of Babel and Mount Sinai, tying each of these biblical themes together to underscore the need to "strengthen the Cuban Jewish community and its ties with the American Jewish community as well."

Zimmerman believes the journey to Havana "allowed Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to extend our hands to help the Jewish community of Cuba, which fulfilled not only our own belief that one of Judaism's central teachings is about ethical works in the world, but also fulfilled the mission given to our movement in 2003" by a leading American rabbi.

Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of the Union of Reform Judaism emphasized in a speech that "we must see the Jewish community as an international community. It is not enough for American Jews to be concerned with Israel alone, but that we must reach out to other Jews wherever they are in need."

With that message in mind, Temple Israel saw the humanitarian mission to Cuba as "a way to reach out to the international Jewish community and strengthen ties between all Jews as the world continues to change," Zimmerman said.

"The second reason centers on the mission as a congregation," she added. "Because we are an urban congregation, we are aware of our responsibility to ensure that the community in Minneapolis receives the support it needs to remain vibrant and a place where everyone's lives get better. This mission centers on social justice and social action work. When this trip was first spoken about, the fact that it was a humanitarian mission was quite appealing."

The Temple Israel group brought into Cuba more than 1,000 pounds of medical aid worth several thousand dollars. "Access to medication is problematic in Cuba," Zimmerman said. "Basic medications like ibuprofen, Tylenol, antibiotics and others are not always available and not easily accessible. This means there is little hope without outside help."

And while the Communist state says it provides the necessities for its people -- and therefore, higher wages are unnecessary -- reality suggests otherwise. School supplies, for example, are priced far beyond what an average Cuban can afford. This inspired the Temple Israel visitors to bring in school supplies -- crayons, paper, books, notebooks and the like. Many Cuban converts

Nearly 90% of the Cuban Jewish population departed following the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Over the next four-plus decades, the remaining Jewish population has intermarried with the members of indigenous faiths. And Jews count many converts among their current ranks of 1,200.

Most Cubans know little, if anything, about Judaism. There is no rabbi or cantor in the Havana area. The music, teachings and worship are taught by local Jews trained by two young adult educators sent to Cuba from Argentina. With the breakdown of the Soviet system in the late 1980s, religion became more acceptable. Each year since then, Americans, Canadians and others have visited to help their fellow Jews.

Havana's largest and most active synagogue is part of a recently remodeled complex most often referred to as the "Patronato," a combination of Beth Shalom Synagogue, a library, clinic, community center and Sunday School.

"It is a fairly large sanctuary with no loud fans and would be quite acceptable in the United States," recalled mission participant Paul Slaton.

June Safran, executive director of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission in Berkeley, Calif., has been visiting Havana for 10 years and bringing aid groups for the past eight. She loves the Jewish communities of Havana and the provinces. She praises the public school system, "which offers equal opportunity for all children and quality teaching, even though some materials are hard to come by. The children wear uniforms, the teachers are very good and standards are generally high."

Asked about the neighborhood around the Patronato, Safran said, "Like all large cities, there is a certain lack of socialization between neighbors that does not exist in the smaller cities in the provinces. The closest members live 2 blocks away. Most people live farther. Some walk as far as 3 miles. Some drive greater distances.

"They come in all ages and both sexes. Many people between 20 and 40 attend, both married and single. I find the synagogue comfortable, and I feel like a member. There are youngsters running up and down the aisles these days. It's a pleasure to see how at home they feel."


Kevin Odegard is a musician and author ("A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood On The Tracks") and lives in Wayzata. He is a Temple Israel congregant.

A look at some notable moments for the island nation's Jews:

1898: The first Jewish cemetery is established. It still is used.
1910-1914: Turkish and Syrian Sephardic Jews arrived.
1918: Eastern European Jews of Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Romania arrived.
1925: Jewish schools are established.
1948: Hillel-B'nai Brith established.
1959-60: The revolution precipitates the decline and flight of the Cuban Jewish Community, continuing through the 1980s.
1980s and 1990s: With the breakdown of the Soviet system, religion again became more acceptable, although the structures were in ruin. Each year since then, Americans have brought more help to Cuban Jews.

Kevin Odegard