A first visit to Cuba (the whole essay)

1. What do I know?

How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.

I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)

As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?

I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.

On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.

Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.

We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.

 

2. The things we carry

Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.

So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.

Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.

And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."

3. Haves and have-nots

 

Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.

We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.

Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.

I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.

The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."

Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?

Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.

The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.

And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?

 

4. A heart afire

 

Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.

We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.

She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.

She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.

After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.

What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?

What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.

 

5. Tourism and syncretism

 

We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.

In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.

From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?

This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that  those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.

On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.

We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)

Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.

After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

9. Coming home

 

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 9: Coming home

This is the final part of a nine-part essay about my first trip to Cuba. 

 

 

9. Coming home

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

I'll make one more post tomorrow, containing the whole essay all in one fell swoop for those who want to read it all in one place. If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 8: Miracles in Camagüey

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part eight.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

Stay tuned for part nine of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 7: Cognitive dissonance

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part seven.

 

7. Cognitive dissonance

 

Once we leave shul, we shift gears and visit the Cementario Israelita, the Jewish cemetery of the central provinces. (Ordinarily one wouldn't visit a cemetery on Shabbat, but we are packing as much as we can into the time we have.) The cemetery is down a narrow dirt road, surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood of small cement-block dwellings with corrugated roofs. 

We gather inside the cemetery and hear words from David Tacher Romano, president of the Santa Clara Jewish community, translated by our guide. We take turns watering the tree planted as a sapling that came from the Negev. Here too there is a room by the gates where bodies are prepared for Jewish burial. We learn that that room was used just a few months ago, in February.

A scant few minutes later we are at a Che Guevara memorial. The plaza is vast and I can imagine it filled with crowds. I don't go into the tomb: I've had enough of death for one day. Instead I sit on a low stone wall, and watch a trio of stray dogs chase each other around the grounds, and watch the enormous Cuban flag waving overhead, and sip a tiny cup of strong dark hot coffee.

And then our bus pulls off the road and we are in another world. We're at a Cuban resort on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There are little round houses with thatched roofs (and air conditioning), and a swimming pool where Spanish disco is blaring all afternoon. Many of those present, our waiter tells us, are locals -- if they have money, Cubans can come here, and many do.

Suddenly it feels like a Caribbean resort. But we were just in a poor neighborhood. And then we were surrounded by propaganda. And now there are couples necking in the pool, and children of all hues wearing floaties, and the thump of Spanish-language pop music. Also there are free-range chickens. And just this morning we were at a bat mitzvah. My head is spinning.

By Saturday night when Shabbat ends, my brain feels thoroughly scrambled from the cognitive dissonance. The beautiful little Santa Clara shul. The bat mitzvah girl herself, who reminds me in some way of every kid I've ever taught. And then the cemetery, and its neighbors whom our guide says may be squatters. The Che Guevara memorial. This resort in the middle of it all.

"Cognitive dissonance? That's Cuba," Rabbi Sunny tells me.

 

Stay tuned for part eight of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 6: Holy spirit

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part six.

 

6. Holy spirit

Our next stop is Sancti Spiritus, where motorbikes and bicycles share the roads with horses pulling wagons that serve as group taxis. As in Cienfuegos, our historic hotel is old Spanish-style, built around central courtyards, with old heavy wooden furniture. It feels a million light-years away from the hip mid-century-modern (as though frozen in time) décor of our Havana hotel.

On Friday night our bus takes us on a winding route out of the old part of town and to the home of the Barlia family. Like many houses here, theirs has iron gates and window coverings -- but their wrought-ironwork proudly displays stars of David. The Barlia family hosts, and leads, Kabbalat Shabbat services for Jews of this province twice a month in the courtyard of their home.

This Shabbat their daughter Elisa is becoming bat mitzvah. She lights Shabbat candles in front of a celebratory photograph of herself holding a Torah. She and her sister and R' Sunny lead us in Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat into our midst. Over our heads, a metal grate that looks like fish scales shows the changing colors of the sky and the early-Cheshvan crescent moon.

As in Buenos Aires ten years ago, I am struck by why it matters that Jews pray in Hebrew. Most of us in this group don't share a common language with Cubans. At best we can manage a few phrases. (A couple of us are fluent; most of us... not.) But we can pray with them, welcome Shabbat with them. We can sing ancient words with them, and in those words, our hearts connect.

The bat mitzvah continues on Shabbat morning in Santa Clara, where we convene at Beth Am, a project of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, the nonprofit behind our religious / medical mission to Cuba. Beth Am is the first (and only) new synagogue in Cuba since the Revolution. (It's in a new building, but was a preexisting community; no "new" houses of worship can be built.)

The shul is small, and beautiful, and we fill it: 20 Americans, a few of whom have been coming here for years and know the Barlia family well, and a few dozen locals here to celebrate one of their own. We daven and we sing. The four rabbis on our trip bless the bat mitzvah (with words that I wrote, translated into Spanish!) and we join the Barlia family in chanting from Torah.

After the service we feast on the rooftop of the shul, beside a wall of painted clay tiles that depict different sites across Jerusalem. Before we leave, we gather again in the sanctuary with two guitars and a ukelele and we sing and dance and rejoice. What a mechaieh, a life-giving thing, to get to join the local Jewish community in filling this little synagogue with holy spirit.

 

Stay tuned for part seven of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 5: Tourism and syncretism

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part five.

 

5. Tourism and syncretism

We are also tourists. Our primary purpose is meeting Cuban Jews and delivering medicines, but we also take a day trip to Trinidad. It was abandoned for 85 years, which is why it's one of the world's best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture. On the way there, we pass a Russian nuclear plant that never worked. Some things in Cuba feel like a Kafka story.

In Trinidad the streets are "paved" with local stones and with cobbles brought as ballast from Europe. There are men in guayaberas with instruments, playing Guantanamera beneath shady trees. There are artisans selling lace and embroidery and wooden boxes of dominos, their prices lowering as we walk past. There aren't many other tourists -- at least not that I can see.

From the luxurious rooftop paladar where we lunch I see children playing amidst red clay tiles and chicken coops. They wave at us. Dare we hope that our tourist dollars are helping them? When we get back to our stunning old Cienfuegos hotel I go for a swim in the pool in the courtyard. How can I square this gracious opulence with the deprivations that locals take for granted?

This place is extraordinary. Beautiful. Musical. Literate. And the Cuban people I meet everywhere we go clearly feel pride in who and where they are. And it's also clear that they need the help, medical and fiscal, that we're here to bring. I'm thinking about scarcity and poverty... with awareness that  those things exist in my country too. My usual orbit just allows me not to see them.

On our first full day in Cuba we visited an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Havana where two women taught us about Santeria (also known as Regla de Ocha). Santeria is a religious tradition that intertwines Yoruba orishas (which the translator renders as "guardian angels") with Catholicism. Seventy percent of Cubans have some interaction with Santeria.

We learned about the altars, the figures depicted there, appropriate offerings for each and the relationships between them. We learned how the initiation process works. I was fascinated by how it dovetails with going to mass. Apparently the local Catholic priests recognize Santeria initiates, and don't seem to mind the religious syncretism. (Or at least, they allow it to continue.)

Some of what the women in that apartment shared with us is utterly unlike Judaism. And some of it evokes ideas from my tradition. Maybe inevitably, I'm always looking for resonance. I wonder what it was like for these women to host this group of American Jews. I worried that they might feel exposed, but they seemed delighted to be able to share their tradition with us.

After that visit, whenever I see someone wearing all white I wonder whether that person is a Santeria initiate. Many of us in this Jewish tour group wear all-white on Shabbat, a custom that comes from the mystics of Tzfat who created the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it. Maybe the locals, seeing us in our Shabbat whites, imagine that we are Santeria initiates too.

Stay tuned for part six of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 4: A heart afire

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part four.

 

4. A heart afire

Some who come to Cuba only visit Havana. Havana is indeed a beautiful city. It is golden and it is crumbling and the classic cars and the Malecon (the waterfront road) are as beautiful as everyone says, as every photo reveals. But R' Sunny insisted that we need to get out into the provinces to get a more nuanced picture of Jewish Cuba and Cuba writ large. He was right.

We drive past lush green fields of banana trees and sugar cane to Cienfuegos, our first provincial stop. First we gather on the roof of an opulent former mansion, where we sip mojitos and gaze at a rainbow (appropriate during this week of parashat Noach!) Then we visit the home of the Langus family. Rebecca Langus welcomes us and (with our guide as translator) tells us her story.

She always knew she was Jewish, she tells us, but she didn't learn what that meant until 1992 when the state officially exchanged its atheism for agnosticism. When Rebecca was growing up, her Turkish grandmother insisted that they eat matzah (sent each year by the Joint Distribution Committee) at Pesach -- but she never knew why they ate it or what it signified until the 1990s.

She tells us how she taught herself everything she knows about Judaism -- gesturing to their small library of Judaic books, all donated by communities like ours -- in order to teach her children. The community in Cienfuegos now is eight families: eighteen people, three of whom are children. They meet for Shabbat services in her living room, set up with white monobloc chairs.

After her prepared remarks, she chats with the rabbis on our trip. We ask her what fuels her and where she finds her sense of hope in this work. In response, Rebecca tells us simply that everything she does, she does for love. That would have been clear even if she hadn't said a word. Her care for her community and for Jewish tradition shines out of her face, out of her being.

What does it take to persist as Jewish community in a place like this? To show up for Shabbat every other week because there are literally only eighteen of you and if a handful don't show, there's no minyan? Is there something about being in a place where religion used to be forbidden that makes people now want to claim the right and privilege of spiritual practice in community?

What does it take to profess and choose and celebrate Jewishness in a place where the economic picture is so difficult that many young people choose to emigrate to Israel, or Mexico, or Europe, or wherever else they can? We ask what would help the communities most. The answer I keep hearing: convince our government to end the embargo so Cuba can thrive again.

 

Stay tuned for part five of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 3: Haves and have-nots

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part three.

3. Haves and have-nots

Our group has many conversations about the Cubans who became exiles at the time of the revolution, about those who chose to stay, about idealism and failure, about the revolution's ideals and its realities, about the kibbutz movement in Israel and whether or how there are parallels, about young people leaving in search of a better life, about what Cuban Jews need in order to flourish.

We take our meals in privately-operated restaurants called paladares. As tourists, we never encounter food shortages, though it's clear that everyone is operating with the same relatively limited set of ingredients. We know that because we are tourists, rather than locals, we are getting the best of what there is. When we make hamotzi before our meals, I am awash in gratitude.

Most Cubans earn only tens of dollars each month. A doctor, we are told, might earn $60 a month. Everyone seems to need a side hustle. The woman who works as a tour guide at the cigar factory gets cigars as part of her pay, and she can sell them on the side to people like us... when there are people like us here buying things. Of course, these days, there mostly aren't.

I've read about the "Special Period" after the Soviet Union fell, but now I'm hearing from people who lived through it. I hear about eating grass to try to fill their bellies. How everyone grew thin. How Habaneros developed scurvy while citrus rotted in the fields because there was no fuel to transport it. "I hope they don't issue us Chinese-made bicycles again," one person jokes.

The tightened embargo now, some say, will be worse. "They think if they punish us, we will bend," someone says. "They don't understand Cubans."

Later in the week we visit some stores for locals, stores that sell things in CUPs (the Cuban peso) rather than CUCs (the "convertible peso.") I am shocked at how little is on the shelves. The embargo has tightened. There is less to be had. Farmers may return to plowing with oxen; without fuel, tractors won't run. How is it that people here don't hate us for all that we have?

Being here is making me aware of what I take for granted at home. I'm also noticing kinds of abundance here that I don't encounter at home. Abundance of beauty and color: back home the trees are bare at this season, and houses often drab, but here trees and fields and paint colors are vivid and bright. And especially abundance of music. Cuba is justifiably famous for music.

The music on this island is extraordinary. I keep trying to write about it and then giving up. I could as easily write about a rainbow, or about falling in love. Anything I can say would be trite. The rhythms, the harmonies, the omnipresence of beat and song: all move me. I'm thinking a lot this week about how prosperity (or lack thereof), and music, and spiritual life interact.

And I'm thinking about the things that my little community takes for granted. I think about how much easier it seems (to me) to be a Jew where I live than it is here. And I wonder whether there's an inverse correlation between ease and attachment. Do we naturally become less attached to our traditions, our spiritual lives, and our Jewish identities when they are easy to maintain?

 

Stay tuned for part four of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 2: The things we carry

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part two.

2. The things we carry

Everywhere we go on the island we bring medical supplies. Our first two stops are the Centro Sefaradi and the Patronato in Havana. Their pharmacy shelves were bare, emptied since last time R' Sunny was here six months ago. They disburse medical supplies to anyone who needs, Jewish or not. There are other pharmacies (we visit one later) but their shelves are spare too.

So much that we take for granted is not available to Cubans. We've brought aspirin, vitamins, diapers, soap, prescription drugs. "Rite Aid or Walmart is like science fiction to us," says one Cuban who has traveled abroad. I lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart breaks. And I also lose track of how many times and in how many ways my heart soars.

Even just in Havana. The chapel at the Centro Sefaradi has light fixtures from Shevet Achim in Old Havana, the first Sefaradi congregation in Cuba, founded by immigrants from Turkey and Syria. Those fixtures still shine. I mean this literally and metaphorically! At the Patronato, I'm moved by the cheery preschool classroom funded by the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

The sanctuary at the Patronato looks like every mid-20th-century synagogue I've ever seen. Like the classic cars that serve as taxis all over Havana, it's been repaired and patched and kept running ever since it was new. At home a space like that would feel staid, but it feels different here, even defiant here. It's still here; it hasn't gone away; Judaism hasn't gone away.

And yet many Jews have departed. For the United States, for Israel, for Spain, for Mexico. There are fewer than a thousand Jews left on this island. The further inland we go, the smaller the communities we meet -- but the heart and spirit we experience praying with them, eating with them, singing with them, just being with them, is enormous. Outsized. "My cup overflows."

 

Stay tuned for part three of this essay, coming tomorrow.


A first visit to Cuba 1: What do I know?

This essay will be posted in nine parts. This is the first part; I'll share the others in coming days. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting.

 

1. What do I know?

How on earth can I write, as an outsider, about the beautiful, wrenching, poignant, powerful experience of nine days on a religious mission to Cuba? The kaleidoscope of Cuba keeps turning, and every time it turns, the pieces shift and a new picture emerges. In some ways it reminds me of Ghana, or India, or Argentina. In other ways it's not quite like anyplace I've ever been.

I am here with a small delegation from Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, and a larger delegation from Temple Beth El of City Island. I am here with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, a rabbinic school friend. (Also with Rabbi David Markus of TBE, and with Rabbi Bella Bogart, a rabbi and musician; we three are also founding builders at Bayit.)

As soon as we visit our first synagogue, the Sinagoga Centro Sefaradi, I am struck by the locals' fierce sense of identity, Jewish and Cuban. They tell us proudly that they have Shabbat services every weekend, and they always manage a minyan. They tell us proudly that there's no antisemitism here. I half-think it's propaganda, but people keep saying it. Is it possible that it's true?

I never once feel unsafe in my kippah. Several times people come up to us and say that they have never seen a woman wearing one before. "Soy una rabbina," I learn to say. "Yo trabajo en una sinagoga." (And sometimes -- when more explanation seems necessary -- I add, "es como una iglesia para los Judíos.") For that matter, I never once feel unsafe as an obvious American.

On our first full day we lunch with Maritza Corrales, author of Chosen Island: a History of the Jews of Cuba. One of my compatriots asks why she stays in Cuba. She begins by telling us that in 1529, a mere ten years after colonization, they were writing back to Spain to say that they needed to be ruled by an islander because the colonizers didn't understand this place.

Maritza travels the world to teach. She could live anywhere, but she chooses here. Why would she want to come to the Estados Unidos where people would call her "Latina" with scorn? She is Cubana. It's easy for us as American Jews to imagine that surely everyone would join us if they could. Maritza has just revealed to me some of my unconscious biases about Cuba and Cubans.

We visit a Jewish cemetery on the far side of the city where Maritza tells us stories about those who are buried there. I am moved by the headstones in Hebrew and Spanish, by how tangible the Jewish presence is and feels. As we are departing, a non-Jewish Cuban man who works there pours water over our hands, following Jewish tradition, so that we can wash the cemetery away.

 

 

Stay tuned for part two of this essay, coming tomorrow.


Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A week of building with Bayit

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Within minutes of arrival, I'm drawn into a conversation about the meaning of the end of the Book of Jonah, its place in the arc of Yom Kippur, and what the ellipses implicit in that ending have to teach us. The guitars come out, and next thing I know I'm saying "wait, wait, show me that chord again," and I'm learning new chord progressions. We talk and sing and we sit by an outdoor fire for a while and I make dinner and we dine around a big table and then we move back outside, to the firepit this time, where we talk and laugh and talk and argue and talk under the wheeling spray of the Milky Way.

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I wake to coffee. The sunlight on the lake is dazzling. There is yoga, expertly led. There is impromptu davenen on the pier, sunlight shining through my sheer rainbow tallit, my feet dipping into the waters of the lake. We do a core values exercise and talk about what animates us. We sit outside in the sunshine on Adirondack chairs and make giant lists of our hopes and aspirations, what we want to get out of the week, what's on our priority list, dreams and goals for Bayit and for ourselves. We spend a few hours combing through the pages of Doorways one by one. And then we go kayaking.

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We look at plans for our Sketchnoting Jewishly book. We cook. We talk about working with college students. We study texts about masculinity and grace, and begin brainstorming modalities of menschlichkeit. Giant sticky-tab pages proliferate on the walls, covered with words, drawings, diagrams, charts, and ideas. We break for ice cream. We talk and laugh and sing and learn. I learn new melodies for prayers I know and love. The number of guitars in the room multiplies. Whoever finishes the coffee in the pot starts a new one. Whoever didn't cook, does dishes. We laugh and harmonize.

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We talk about board functions, about growing our build teams, about how our different projects (should) interrelate, about growing from a startup into what follows. We take a break to walk all the way around the lake, past houses and summer camps, exclaiming over the softness of pine needles underfoot and the beauty of the woods around us. The walls of the living room fill up with more ideas, and pages, and bright yellow post-it notes. We praise each others' recipes. We bring all of the guitars out to the firepit with the Adirondack chairs and we sing and laugh under the stars.

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We kayak onto glassy water, pause our boats under an arched stone bridge, and sing. We talk about the innovation pipeline and what we hope Bayit can accomplish next year. We come up with a new plan for Builders Blog, and learn how to use Trello. We break for mincha (afternoon prayer) overlooking the lake, two altos and a tenor with a drum and a guitar; the ashrei feels like heaven. The fabulous R' Wendy Amsellem teaches us Talmud on taking diverse opinions into our ears and hearts, on making our insides match our outsides, and on creating communities where it's safe to speak.

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At the end of the week I make challah, and we work on high holiday sermons under the trees, and some of us do mikvah in the lake, and then we gather outdoors with guitars to welcome Shabbat. There is nothing quite like Shabbes at the end of a week like this -- a week of brainstorming and kayaking, visioning and singing, planning and building. I am so grateful for this week. It's been sweet and song-filled, intense and real. And now I'm ready to return to my kid... knowing that my Bayit hevre and I will continue the work of building Jewish together, in all of the different places we call home. 


New on Builders Blog: building lessons from D'varim

I had the profound pleasure of coauthoring this week's Builders Blog post with my friend and colleague Rabbi Bella Bogart. In studying this week's Torah portion together, we discerned some important building lessons. And we also discovered that when we were rabbinic students, we had parallel but opposite conversations with mentors, who taught us -- by example both positive and negative -- an important lesson about how to relate to those whom we serve.

Here's a taste:

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...First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present...

(Sketchnote by the marvelous Steve Silbert, as always.) Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Building lessons from D'varim

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


Worth reading: on ethics in the Jewish world

Lately there's been a lot in the press about Jewish ethics systems failing -- in Jewish clergy associationsday schoolssummer camps and campus contexts. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus has written an op-ed on this subject, calling for systemic change. Here's a taste:

...Whether alleged misconduct relates to sex, money, administration, asymmetric power or other ethics infractions, the Jewish context vastly raises the stakes. Alleged misconduct, or responses inviting fairness critique, can exacerbate emotional and spiritual damage when identity, values or faith are on the line. Ethics systems for clergy and schools teach and model ethics, so those systems especially must be above reproach.

Too many confirmed reports, however, depict Jewish ethics systems failing. Reports show whistleblowers gaslighted or shunned for seeking justice. Investigators lacking proper training commit flagrant fairness violations, even deciding matters without speaking to complainants. Confirmed offenders are sheltered to avert shame, or perhaps for career or political reasons.

Too many hurdles. Too little expertise. Too little proper support. Wrong understandings of justice and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to victims’ courage that they come forward at all... It’s time to end the damaging and sometimes dangerous practice of Jewish institutions policing their own ethics. Jewish life needs a new and functionally independent ethics regime.

Read the whole thing: Jewish ethics demands an independent path forward. Deep thanks to R' David and to the Jewish Week / Times of Israel for this essay. May the changes called for here come to pass, speedily and soon.


Reflections on an innovation retreat

Retreat

This week I participated in a rabbinic retreat focusing on innovation, and it was honestly one of the best retreat experiences I've ever had. The planning committee consisted of seven Rabbis Without Borders fellows who spent the last several months putting the retreat together (though our participant pool broadened beyond that group). We began the retreat with getting to know each other more deeply, creating a container for our time together, agreeing to kavanot (intentions) and processes.

One night Rabbi Mike Moskowitz taught us texts of chiddushim, innovations or new ideas. He began with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun ("ah, but over the sun, that might be another matter!") and brought us to the idea that each of us contains a part of the divine Soul and therefore each of us has unique Torah to uncover in partnership with the Holy. Another night, for Rosh Chodesh Adar, he taught texts about gender and clothing and what it means to reveal who we truly are.

One day Naomi Less from Lab/Shul led a stunning morning service that pushed some of our boundaries (in good ways), and brought some of us to tears (in good ways) and introduced us to Josh Warshawsky's gorgeous Ha-Meirah. It inspired really good conversations afterwards. Naomi also taught two fantastic sessions on Storahtelling and on innovation writ large, including some great text study that took us deep into the history and purpose and possibility of reading Torah aloud in community.

A propos of Naomi's beautiful shacharit -- and the retreat writ large -- I was reminded again that there is almost nothing in the world that brings me more joy than singing prayer in harmony with people whom I know and care for, and who care about our tradition's words and their meanings as much as I do. It is much of what I love about singing, much of what I love about prayer, and much of what I love about togetherness all in one. I know I've said that here before. I suspect that it will always be true.

Steve Silbert taught a session on the spiritual art of sketchnoting, gently and skillfully bringing us into his Visual Torah work and his practice of using images to learn and to teach. I came away with a new tool in my rabbinic toolbox, and also with ideas for how to incorporate his Visual Torah methods and practices into my teaching and my rabbinate. He brought wisdom to all of our sessions, too -- in his professional life he does facilitation work that overlaps a lot with some of the spiritual work that we do.

We held a related pair of sessions on innovation. In one we explored ritual innovations that we've tried, and why we've tried them, and how we brought them into being, and what kinds of responses arose from those whom we serve. In the other we explored what works, how we measure what works, what it means for a spiritual innovation to "work" anyway, how we balance qualitative and quantitative analysis, the appropriate role of entrepreneurial language in spiritual life, and more.

At our closing session we talked about what we're taking away from this retreat, teachings and melodies and grounding and connections. And we talked about next time, assuming that there is a next time -- and we all agreed that we want this to be a beginning, not a one-off. We brainstormed about what made this retreat so sweet, and how to replicate its sweetness, and what kinds of things we want to do together in days and months and years to come, and where we might go from here.

The conversations around all of these subjects continued on into meals and downtimes. One night we sang the whole Grace After Meals with gusto. One night we played a special edition of Rabbi Pictionary, created just for us! Those who were with us as teachers and "presenters" were also present with us during the retreat as friends and colleagues, which feels significant. In the closing session several people talked about the gift of experiencing a genuine absence of hierarchy, and posturing, and ego.

And that was all the more special because we consciously didn't erase our differences. Our group of participants came from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, ultra-Orthodox, and trans-denominational settings. Our approaches to halakha, to prayer, and to practice are as diverse as that set of labels would imply. There was a genuine sense that we were all there to learn from and with each other, a pluralism that was both real and deep. Everything we did together felt both real and deep. 

And that's the ineffable thing I can't quite describe. It's like singing with friends in really great harmony. Though harmonies at least can be recorded. Listening to them afterwards isn't the same as singing them in the moment, but it gives a sense of the beauty. This kind of real friendship, collegiality, and connection can't be put into words in a way that doesn't sound corny. So I guess I'll accept sounding corny. It's a small price to pay for a really terrific few days, and the promise of more to come.

 

This is the work for which we received funding from the Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation. I'm grateful to the Katz family for their fiscal support and to Bayit for providing the fiscal container within which the retreat could unfold.

 


Dedication

31213574017_9562b1cba0_oChanukah means "dedication." As in chanukat bayit, the ritual of blessing and dedicating a new home. Or Chanukat Bayit, the experience of rededicating The House, the home for God's presence on Earth, which was how we understood the Temple in Jerusalem in the days when it stood. Chanukah reminds us of reconsecrating that holy space long ago.

Dedication was on my mind last night as I stood with a crowd of some 40 people around the median across the street from City Hall in North Adams. (A space which I have now learned is named Dr. Arthur Rosenthal Square.) That median is home to a big City Christmas tree, and I have always admired it as I drive past. (I love Christmas lights; they brighten the dark.)

But there was something different about seeing a symbol of my own tradition there too. As of this year, the City of North Adams has a chanukiyah, a menorah for Chanukah. (Technically "menorah" denotes one with three branches on either side of the shamash or helper candle, whereas "chanukiyah" denotes one with four branches on either side, eight candles for the eight days of the holiday.) The City chanukiyah stands proudly beside the City tree, proclaiming that our little city is home to Jews as well as to Christians, and celebrating both of our winter festivals of light.

Chanukah isn't a major holiday in Jewish tradition. Sure, it's a big deal for Jewish children, many of whom receive presents at this season -- though that's clearly a response to the (secular) Christian practice of making Christmas into a gift-giving extravaganza. But our "holiday season" isn't really December, it's the lunar months of Elul and Tishrei (usually September / October on the Gregorian calendar) when we prepare for the Days of Awe and then celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And Chanukah doesn't appear anywhere in the Hebrew scriptures. It's truly a minor festival, in the grand scheme.

But because Christmas is so omnipresent and so visible in the public sphere, it's easy for Jews in the Diaspora to feel extra-invisible at this time of year. I didn't realize how moved I would be to see a visible reminder of Jewishness in the public space of downtown North Adams until I saw the City chanukiyah lit and gleaming beside the bright and gleaming tree. At this season of (re)dedication, when we dedicate our hands and hearts to the work of making the whole world a holy place for divine Presence to dwell, it meant a lot to me to take part in dedicating a new chanukiyah for the City whose inhabitants I'm blessed to serve.

I'm deeply grateful to Mayor Tom Bernard for making this happen, and to the City buildings and grounds crew who did all of the behind-the-scenes work of setting up and installing and wiring the chanukiyah so that we could gather on the first night of Chanukah and together bring a little bit more light into the world. I'm looking forward to driving through town in the coming days, and to seeing the number of lights increase. And I'm grateful for the experience of feeling seen as a religious minority in the place where I live -- and at a season when it's all too easy for Jews to feel like we're on the outside, feeling welcomed instead.

 

Photo by Gillian Jones for the Berkshire Eagle.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)

 


From hope to horror and back again

On Friday, I stood with friends and children, townspeople and college students, on the town green. We were holding up signs that said things like "Trans people matter" and "trans rights are human rights." Some of our signs were painted in rainbows, others in the colors of the transgender flag. Every car that drove by honked and waved and gave us thumbs-up signs of solidarity.

Among the hundred or so participants I saw some who I know to be transgender and some who I know to be cisgender, some who were young and some who were older, some who I know to be religious people like me and some who were probably non-religious. I saw rainbow hats and facepaint. I saw togetherness. I saw hope in our affirmation that even if the current administration succeeds in changing the legal definition of how gender works, we will stand up for our transgender friends and family and congregants and community members, and we will support them and help them thrive in all the ways that we can. 

On Shabbat morning, I emerged from synagogue to the news of a horrific shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter screamed "all Jews must die" before opening fire.

It's hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance between the feelings of hope and togetherness that carried me into Shabbat, and the feelings evoked by news of this latest act of murderous hatred carried out against my fellow Jews in a house of prayer. 

I was talking with my therapist recently about the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the ways I'm noticing it now not only in those whom I serve but also in myself. As a kid, I used to lie in bed and make plans for what I would grab in my suitcase if "they" came after us again and we had to flee for our safety. (Usually my answer was "my loveys, my diary, and my cat.") I don't think I grew up in a particularly Holocaust-focused household; I was just an ordinary Jewish kid in the 20th century. But of course I grew up with knowledge that anti-Jewish hatred exists and is deadly and might someday endanger my family and me.

To be clear: I don't think my family and I are in danger. I routinely wear a kippah around town, and have never been met with anything other than warmth or occasionally well-intentioned curiosity. I feel safe, and I think the rest of my family is safe, too. Unless someone who hates Jews and has a gun walks into their synagogue and opens fire, though I'm pretty sure their big-city synagogues in Texas have armed guards outside them already for precisely this reason. (And I hate the fact that many synagogues across the nation feel the need for armed guards for this reason, but in this moment, I understand why they do.)

I know that many people are in far more danger than I am right now. Queer and trans people are in more danger. Muslims and people of color are in more danger. Immigrants and refugees are in more danger. The children who have been imprisoned in cages in south Texas are in a kind of danger I can barely bring myself to comprehend. I'm white, and I live in a town that feels safe -- as safe as anywhere can, these days. A town where a hundred people gathered together on a Friday afternoon to chant and cheer and embrace our transgender community members and promise them that we will stand by them in their time of need. 

And I'm still a Jew whose mother and grandparents barely escaped Europe before everyone else in the family was sent to the death camps. Acts of violence against Jews awaken ancestral collective trauma in me, as they do in many of those whom I serve. We can't help wondering whether this is the beginning of another Holocaust, another slide into fascism and national xenophobia. The Holocaust claimed eleven million lives: six million Jews, and five million who were queer or Roma or otherwise "undesirable." Will it happen again? Is it happening again even now? Many Jews wake and sleep and live with this fear.

What can we do but continue to work toward a world of greater justice and righteousness? What can we do but reach out to comfort those who mourn -- and then continue existing, and davening, and singing, and hoping, and building toward the better world our tradition teaches us is possible? What can we do but continue learning and praying, naming our babies and celebrating our adolescents' coming of age, marking lifecycles and festivals with music and hope and tears and even, when we can manage it, joy? We have to persist. We have to keep hoping in, and building toward, a world that is better than this one.

And we have to keep standing up for others who are in even more marginalized positions than are we. We have to be upstanders who help those in need. Those of us with white skin, like me, need to use the privilege of that skin to stand up for people of color who feel attacked and afraid. Those of us who are cis-gender, like me -- whose sense of self fits with the gender label we were given at birth -- need to use that privilege to stand up for transgender people who feel attacked and afraid. We who have safe places to live need to stand up for refugees who are fleeing in desperate search of safety. We need to stand up for each other.

I don't want to be writing about hatred and xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, or pipe bombs, or a shooter walking into a synagogue and opening fire. But this is the world we're living in, and I can't ignore that. All I can offer is this: as Jews, we need to keep being who we are, and we need to stand in solidarity with others who are also frightened and at risk. We need to build a world where this kind of hatred is a thing of the past. Right now it's hard to believe that such a world will ever be possible, but we have to keep building toward it. Because the alternative is accepting that what's happening now is okay, and that's unbearable.

 

In case it's helpful, here's what I sent to my synagogue community.


On embracing the globe

The president has been ranting about globalists. I did some research into why the "globalist" label is considered anti-semitic, and what it means to be a globalist, anyway. And then I wrote an essay for the Forward, and here's a taste:

 

...The connection between globalists and Jews is, in part, the old anti-Semitic smear that Jews are not truly loyal citizens of any nation. Hitler described Jews as “international elements” that “conduct their business everywhere,” thus harming and undermining good people who are “bound to their soil, to the Fatherland.” Use of globalist as a negative term can be a dog whistle for the far right: those who recognize its roots in Hitler’s philosophy recognize that it’s an encoded way of denigrating Jews.

Some people speak interchangeably of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I absolutely identify as a cosmopolitan — someone who aspires to be a citizen of the wide world, with an awareness that in an interconnected community, we have ethical obligations even to people who live differently than we do... So does that mean I’m a globalist, too?...

 

(Spoiler: yes. Yes, I am, and proudly so -- and I believe that Judaism demands no less, and I wouldn't want to be otherwise.)

Read more in the Forward: Yes, Ranting Against Globalism Is Anti-Semitic.


A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779

Better

There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

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