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.


Preparing to enter Cheshvan... in Cuba

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By the time we reach the end of the Jewish holiday season, I'm always tapped-out. Exhausted b'chol olamot, in all the worlds (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). The holiday season is a marathon. The workload is significant. And while I'm trying to facilitate a meaningful spiritual experience for all of my congregants, I'm also trying to ensure that I'm having one, too. I can't lead others into a place where I myself am not also going. Even if everything goes perfectly (whatever that means!), it's a lot.

And by the end of the season, I'm always emptied-out. I've come to understand this post-holiday tiredness as part of the ebb and flow of the Jewish year. During the seven weeks between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shemini Atzeret I try to make of myself a clear channel so that what my community needs -- words, prayers, intentions, sermons, music -- can flow through me. By the time the holidays are over, I feel like a dry reed, like an autumn leaf that has shone with its brightest colors and now is ready to fall.

Enter Cheshvan, the month that -- for me at least -- contains no holidays at all. (In the Ethiopian Jewish calendar there is a festival known as Sigd, but that's never been part of my lived Jewish experience.) Cheshvan begins next week. As October ends, we'll enter what I think of as a Jewish fallow season. But this year my Cheshvan is going to be different than usual. This year I'll ring in the new month of Cheshvan in Cuba, with members of two small synagogues and the Cuba America Jewish Mission.

We're bringing bags of donated medical and pharmacy supplies as gifts from our communities to theirs. We'll visit five places over the course of our stay (Havana, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, and Camagüey), and we'll meet members of Jewish community everywhere we go. I'm looking forward to the learning, the beauty, and the music. I'm especially eager to learn from and with a community of Jews who have persevered in joyful Jewishness through challenges we can scarcely imagine.

When our two congregations planned this trip, several months ago, we placed it on the calendar after the holidays because that's when the rabbis who were organizing it could manage to take the time to be away. I remember thinking, "oh, sure, end of October, I'll be tired -- it'll be a nice time for a change of scenery." But I don't think I wholly remembered how wholly emptied-out I always feel in the first week after the long round of holidays has finally come to its close. It's a postpartum feeling. 

In this moment, I'm experiencing the timing of our trip as a gift. There's something powerful about entering into this adventure of learning about, and with, and from a new (to me) Jewish community when I feel so emotionally and spiritually emptied. What better time to open myself to travel -- new sights, new sounds, new experiences -- and to being changed? What better time to trust that encountering a different way of being Jewish will make my spiritual cup feel replenished, running over again?

 


Blue reflecting blue

41540405682_b46fa349c5_zThe view from my mirpesset.

 

It's traditional to tie a thread of blue into our tzitzit (the fringes on our prayer shawls).

Some say this is to remind us of when our ancestors "went up" to God and saw a sapphire floor that was "like" a floor beneath a throne that was "like" a throne. (I'm putting those words in quotes because -- as parashat Mishpatim makes clear -- an encounter with God is necessarily beyond all language.)

Others say that the blue thread in our tzitzit is "just" the blue of sky -- no need for mystical visions of sapphire, the blue threads simply remind us of the heavens. Still others see the blue thread as the blue of the sea. Maybe it's the blue of sea reflecting sky reflecting sea in endless conversation.

This morning I davened shacharit (morning prayers) from my little mirpesset (balcony) overlooking the water. I'm profoundly blessed to be spending this week in a place where I can see the sea, and the sky, in all of their ever-changing splendor. 

One of the standard morning blessings praises God Who spreads the earth over the waters. Today I inverted it, blessing the One Who covers so much of this planet with the wonders of the sea.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

 


Visiting where I come from with my son

38615714700_782af0734e_zWhen I walk around San Antonio, time telescopes. I'm here now with my eight-year-old son -- and I remember being eight in this city too, attending second grade at what was then called the Jewish Day School. As he spends time with his grandparents, I remember spending time here with mine. 

We walk on the riverwalk and share illicit bits of bread with the ducks, and I remember feeding ducks at his age from the back of a motorboat on the Guadalupe. I'm sure my parents brought me to the riverwalk when I was his age, though I think the area where we walk now wasn't so built-up then.

He's come to San Antonio once or twice a year since he was born. There are places in my hometown that he remembers fondly but has outgrown. Like Kiddie Park. When we drive by it now on Broadway, my son remembers when the wee Ferris wheel looked huge and grand to him, and laughs.

This year 's highlight is visiting a ranch outside of Castroville, which belongs to two of my parents' friends. When we first mention the outing to him, he asks, "What's a ranch?" which makes my parents laugh: my little Yankee boy doesn't know what a ranch is! (My father explains.)

On the ranch we marvel at a chandelier made out of discarded deer antlers, learn about the difference between antlers and horns, and climb into a two-story treehouse that's built into a giant sprawling live oak. We pile into a red Suburban with the ranch manager and drive all around the land. 

While we're out roaming the land we spot zebras, and springbok, and water buck, and two kinds of deer bounding past prickly pear, sweet acacia, and mesquite. We see sharp-horned Watusi cattle at their feeder. We get to feed honey nut cheerios to fluffy Sicilian miniature donkeys who follow us around and take cheerios from our palms. 

It's sweet to be able to spend time with my son and my parents together, and to layer new memories for him (and me) atop the old.  And when our time in San Antonio (and environs) is up, it's also good to return to our own beds and regular routines. The best of all possible worlds: to feel blessed in our going out, and in our coming home. 

Shabbat shalom to all.

 

Photo: Texas flag, live oak tree, freight train. Taken in D'hanis, Texas. 


An interfaith service trip to Alabama (after Shabbat)

FlamePurpleDECALAt the blessed crack of well-before-dawn on Sunday I'm heading south for what promises to be a truly extraordinary week.

Each year, the chaplains at Williams College partner with the Center for Learning in Action on an interfaith service trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (See Alabama Calling, Williams Alumni Review, July 2012.) This year I am profoundly blessed to be one of the chaplains serving my alma mater, which means I get to take part!

The four chaplains (Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim) will travel to Alabama with a group of a dozen students from a variety of faith backgrounds. This year's group includes students who self-identify as Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Deist, and atheist.

We'll begin the week by visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (and those who are there on that Sunday morning will attend services at the 16th Street Baptist Church; I'm sorry to miss that, though am grateful that those of us who are flying in on Sunday morning will get there in time for the Civil Rights Institute.)

Then we'll spend the week working on a Habitat for Humanity building project together, building a home for someone in need and continuing to help our host community there recover from tornadoes that devastated the area a few years ago. We'll camp out in a local church social hall, and cook vegetarian meals together each night. (I've packed my sleeping bag. The whole thing is giving me fond memories of touring with the Williams College Elizabethans during my own undergraduate days.)

Each night a different chaplain will offer teachings on the shared theme of brokenness and mending. Those evening sessions offer an opportunity to introduce students to our four different faith-traditions, and also to get them talking with each other and with us about how the conversations we're having in the evenings relate to the holy work we're doing during the day. 

Over the course of the week, as we engage with the civil rights movement and how that historic and historical struggle for human rights dovetails with today's politics, I expect that (alone and together) we'll wrestle with our own relationships to race and privilege. For most of us, the American South will be unfamiliar territory, so there's learning to do there. And for most of us, the kind of conscious multi-faith community we're aspiring to co-create will be unfamiliar territory, too. I suspect that all of us will find ourselves pushing up against our usual boundaries from time to time. 

We'll seal the week with what feels to me like a gloriously multi-modal celebration of Shabbat: first we'll attend Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, then Saturday morning Shabbat services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and then Saturday afternoon mass (or as I've been thinking of it, Shabbat mincha in a different key) at St. Francis Xavier, with havdalah as part of our closing reflections and integration work on Saturday night. 

(As a student of the students of Reb Zalman z"l -- he who famously called himself a "Spiritual Peeping Tom" and said he liked to see how other people "get it on with God" -- I think that Shabbat sounds like an actual foretaste of heaven!)

I know that this will be an exhausting and overwhelming week -- and I anticipate that it will be at least as wonderful as it is challenging. I don't know that I'll manage to blog much while I'm away, but I imagine that I will harvest spiritual riches from this trip for a long time to come. 

 


Davening with the deer

On our first morning in Colorado, Rabbi David and I are still on east coast time, so we're both awake by five-ish. Around six we tiptoe out of the house where we are staying, get into our rental car, and drive into the foothills. 

The friend (and fellow ALEPH Board member) with whom we are staying lives on a lovely residential street only moments away from the eastern flank of the Front Range of the Rockies. We drive to Flagstaff Mountain to perch at a beautiful overlook called Panorama Point.


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A few of our morning companions.

As soon as we arrive, the first thing we see are mule deer. First a pair of does, then a brace of bucks with soft furred nubbly antlers. We freeze and look at them, and they look at us, and for a moment all is still. After a minute or so we start breathing again, and when they don't turn tail and run we murmur joy to each other quietly, and they stay near us and munch on grass.

We daven at the very edge of the world, watching the sun rising higher. We are at the place where the plains meet the Flatirons. This is where east meets west. We're near where the continent divides. Before us is a vista of flat land as far as the eye can see: trees, roads, some residential streets. Immediately behind us the hills rise up, peppered with pine trees. 

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More members of our morning minyan.

During the shema, as we are singing the words which remind us to take notice of our tzitzit and be reminded of the mitzvot which connect us up, we are visited by a gleaming green and black hummingbird. The hummingbird hovers near us, rests on a branch briefly, and sips delicately from a nearby flowering bush. Its presence feels like a blessing.

During our silent amidah, which we daven standing at the very edge of the hillside -- I have taken off my sandals, in remembrance of Moshe and the burning bush, and I stand barefoot in the dusty Colorado soil -- a hot air balloon rises at the horizon. By the time we are finished davening, there is a minyan of hot air balloons soaring over the distant plains.

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The plains, before the hot air balloons.

 


Among the roses

IMG_3662What happens when one visits a rose garden on Shabbat afternoon with a group of rabbis, having already taken part in Shabbat morning services; when one takes menucha (rest / rejuvenation) time to enjoy nature, to enjoy friends, and to sit with the still-resonating experiences of the preceding week? 

One might wind up finding mystical resonance in everything one encounters. Such as, for instance, the realization that this particular rose garden has seven tiers, seven levels to descend and climb.

Seven is a powerful number in Judaism. To a Jewish mystic, seven immediately suggests holiness. There are seven days of the week and seven colors of the rainbow, both of which point to the seven "lower" or most accessible sefirot (which one might understand as aspects or qualities of God, or as channels for divine light.) 

As soon as the seven levels are noticed, the rabbis in question might start skipping from level to level, naming each as they go: this level is chesed, lovingkindness; this one is gevurah, boundaried strength; this one tiferet, balance / harmony... These are the same qualities we mark daily and weekly as we count the Omer. In this rose garden we move from one to the next with only a few steps.

Or take the fact that the very lowest level -- the one that corresponds to malchut or Shekhinah: nobility, sovereignty, immanent Divine Presence, the Divine Feminine, embodiment in creation -- centers around a free-flowing spring. There is a free-flowing spring in the very heart of the garden. This is almost too remarkable a literary allusion to be coincidence.

In the Zohar, one of the foundational works of Jewish mysticism, malchut is compared both to a rose and to a free-flowing spring. And when each of the seven "lower" sefirot are mapped to days of the week, malchut is mapped to Shabbat -- the very day on which this rose garden visit is taking place. 

Long after returning home, those who wandered among the roses might pause and smile, remembering the sweetness of that Shabbat, the delight of finding an inhabitable map of the cosmos in which all paths lead to the well of divine abundance at the heart of all things, and the heady scent of roses in bloom.

 

With gratitude to the friend who suggested a visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden during a break between open mike conversations on the California swing of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


An ALEPH Listening Tour week in California


25790244914_d8ecaa678c_zHow can I begin to write about the sum total of ten days of ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour travel? This is our twelfth of thirteen trips over the course of a year. The others were weekends or conferences: deep and intense, but relatively brief. This one lasted for more than a week, and the level of depth and intensity did not falter. 

I began in Las Vegas at a P'nai Tikvah Shabbaton for which I was the visiting scholar. Rabbi David began in San Diego at the Spiritual Directors International conference, connecting with spiritual directors both inside and outside of the Jewish Renewal community, and did a community Listening Tour open mike with Elijah Minyan and Shirat HaYam

We met up in Los Angeles. We did a community open mike there, with a ma'arv service, hosted by Holistic Jew. We met with a focus group at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and with Ziegler's dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. We met with Rabbi Mike Comins of Lev Learning. We met with a focus group from the Academy for Jewish Religion California and talked about interseminary collaboration. We davened on the beach.

We traveled north. We did a dinner and a community open mike at Chadeish Yameinu in Santa Cruz. We had a lunch and a focus group conversation with the Aquarian Minyan. We met up with Rabbi Noa Kushner from The Kitchen, and Jeff Kasowitz and Rabbi Adina Allen from The Jewish Studio Project. We met with a group of millennials and young leaders convened by Hazzan Shulamit Wise Fairman of Kehilla. We met with Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun.

26408034396_dc4d38be1c_zWe co-led davenen at Holistic Jew in LA, and participated in leading davenen at Kehilla Community Synagogue. At Kehilla Rabbi David was the darshan -- teacher of Torah -- on Friday evening, and I was the darshanit on Saturday morning. We leyned from Torah on Shabbat morning before a beautiful community babynaming. We spent Shabbat afternoon holding a community open mike session.

We dined with theKehilla Community Synagogue board and the Chochmat Ha-Lev board. We traveled from hither to yon across communities and neighborhoods in the Bay Area. We stopped often to marvel at California's palm trees, blooming roses, sea otters, and vistas where Pacific waves are rolling in to shore. We did a community open mike at Chochmat Ha-Lev, once a Jewish meditation center and now a congregational community of practice. We flew home. 

26369480892_9b059b9258_zThose are the outlines of our itinerary, but they barely scratch the surface of the conversations, the deep sharing, the hopes and dreams articulated, the rebuilding of bridges, the new and renewed connections contained within our week-plus on the road.

Everywhere we go, we hear some things that are unique to the place that we're visiting. No two communities have the same history, the same needs, the same story. And everywhere we go, we hear some things that resonate with things we've heard in other places we've been, which means that the harmonies of common notes are beginning to emerge. I'm beginning to get an idea of what it will be like to begin working on Renewing Renewal, the report that Rabbi David and I intend to offer before Rosh Hashanah. What will be the integration of this fifteen months of traveling, opening our hearts, and listening with all that we are?

25848716563_0c688f9266_z (1)Right now I'm thinking about (what were for me) unexpected similarities between Vancouver and California, and about the West Coast and its general friendliness to innovation. I'm thinking about how deliciously different is the davenen at each of these Jewish Renewal communities -- and also about what makes the davenen feel similar in heart and spirit even when it takes different forms.

The Bay Area has a unique Jewish Renewal history, and I'm fascinated to see that some of the spectrum of differences spanned within ALEPH writ large is also spanned within the Jewish Renewal communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. I love this evidence of Jewish Renewal's multivocality.

We have one more Listening Tour trip to go: the Denver / Boulder area in late May. We have online focus groups scheduled with states and countries we couldn't manage to reach in person. We're always receiving emails in response to our big questions about what you hope the future of Jewish Renewal will be. And as we move into summer, the Listening Tour will reach its conclusion and we'll dive into synthesizing what we've heard -- though of course the holy work of listening will always be part of our service as co-chairs, even when the formal tour is complete.

26198300790_2d9b2e44f5_z (1)It's humbling to hear people's deepest yearnings for Judaism and for spiritual life. And it's awesome to have an opportunity to serve an organization that I think can bring those yearnings to fruition.


Special gratitude is due to Rabbi Diane Elliot of Embodying Spirit, Enspiriting Body and Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue for facilitating our connections with various branches of the Bay Area Jewish Renewal community.

Photos from top to bottom: us with dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson from Ziegler; with an Aquarian Minyan focus group; with a focus group of young leaders convened by Kehilla Community Synagogue; at Chochmat Ha-Lev. These photos and many others are in my California Listening Tour flickr photoset.


A Listening Tour weekend in Vancouver

26058278726_157e7bec26_zEvery stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different, and every one has been amazing in its own way. But I suspect that our weekend in Vancouver may stand out in memory as one of the most memorable experiences in a year-plus of remarkable experiences.

Maybe that's in part because we traveled such a very long way to be there. Maybe it's in part because we were visiting such a storied community, one of the largest and longest-standing Jewish Renewal communities in the world. Maybe that's in part because the people at Or Shalom welcomed us with such open hearts.

Our visit began with a dinner gathering with members of the host committee, and then after a too-short night of sleep continued with brunch with a group of Or Shalom millennials who spoke to us about their spiritual lives, their hopes, and what "doing Jewish" looks like for them. 

On Friday evening I led a sweet and intimate family Shabbat circle, a few prayers and a few songs and a meditation on the week which was then drawing to its close. Then we davened with the Or Shalom community, savoring a service co-led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan and Rabbi Hannah Dresner (along with musicians Charles Kaplan, Martin Gotfrit, Joe Markovitch, David Kauffman, and Nomi Fenson.) We danced around the room, we sang and prayed, and we marveled at the beauty of the clearing evening sky as we opened the door to welcome the Shabbat bride. (And Rabbi David gave a beautiful d'var Torah about keeping our spiritual fires burning.) After davening and dinner we heard origin stories and histories from Or Shalom's almost forty years of existence, starting with the early years as a havurah in Reb Daniel and Reb Hanna's living room.

25481624483_023d3430dd_zOn Shabbat morning, Rabbi David and I co-led p'sukei d'zimra, the first section of the morning service. (As it turned out, we chose melodies wisely, and the community sang along with spirit.) Then we enjoyed a Shabbat morning service led in turns by Rabbi Hillel Goelman and then by Rabbi Hannah. I was privileged to offer the d'var Torah that morning, on what it means to me to be a nation of priests and how that dovetails with the work we seek to do in ALEPH. After another festive meal we facilitated a community open mike session, harvesting ideas, yearnings, "ouches," dreams, and hopes from the community at large. 

On Sunday we breakfasted with ALEPH Canada colleagues at a vegetarian Vancouver institution, spent the morning with the Or Shalom board of directors, lunched with congregants and clergy, and spent the afternoon with a 2o+ person focus group of involved and invested Or Shalom folks. In between these meetings and meals and meetings-over-meals, we managed to walk a bit by the water; to marvel at the blooming trees and the view of Mount Baker in Queen Elizabeth Park; even, briefly, to see a harbor seal in its natural habitat! Our visit wound down with a final meal, and some debriefing and visioning for the future, with Rabbi Hannah before we regretfully made our way to the airport to begin the three thousand mile journey home.

We have hundreds of pages of notes from the Listening Tour so far -- from the nine stops we've made in person, and also from countless phone calls, zoom videoconference sessions, and emails. And we have many stops yet to go -- we're nowhere near done. We're beginning to see some common themes which are emerging (which are beginning to spark our conversations about what might be in the "Renewing Renewal" report we'll be putting forward before Rosh Hashanah). I'm fascinated by the things which are parallel or similar everywhere we go, and equally fascinated to see things which are different in each place we visit.  I continue to be endlessly grateful that we get to do this work. It's an honor and a privilege to get to sit with people and hear their yearnings and hopes for what ALEPH and Jewish Renewal might become.

 

Dave Kauffman took some terrific photos from the Listening Tour weekend. Thanks, Dave! And deep thanks to the organizing committee and to all of our Or Shalom hosts. 

 


Vancouver-bound

VancouverWe're on the road again! The next stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is the one for which we'll be traveling the furthest: Vancouver, British Columbia.

Our weekend in Vancouver will be hosted by Or Shalom, Canada's Jewish Renewal community of longest standing. As their history page on their website notes, they began in 1982 as a havurah, a group of friends meeting in people's homes. Or Shalom's first rabbinic leadership came from Rabbi Daniel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, with whom I studied (halakha and spiritual direction, respectively) in rabbinic school.

More recently the congregation was led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, another dear rabbinic school teacher and friend. Today it is led by Rabbi Hannah Dresner, yet another dear friend from rabbinic school! I am delighted that all of these luminaries will be joining us for the weekend. This will be Reb Hanna's second stop on our Listening Tour, as she was with us in Boston last fall when we enjoyed beautiful morning davenen and our first open mike session at B'nai Or in Boston

As has become our custom, the Vancouver weekend will be chock-full of a variety of different kinds of encounters. We'll have opportunities to daven with the Or Shalom community (and we'll participate in leading the davenen, too.) We'll hold open mike sessions, offering members of the community the opportunity to share their stories, remembrances, frustrations, hopes, fears, and dreams. We'll meet with congregational leadership and with young people. We'll talk about big-picture questions of the ecosystem of innovation, and smaller-picture questions of what Or Shalom and Jewish Renewal in British Columbia need from ALEPH and what ALEPH needs from Or Shalom and from Jewish Renewal in BC in return. 

I imagine that some of our conversations in Vancouver will be parallel to the conversations we had in Montréal about the unique valances of Jewish Renewal in Canada. I imagine that some of our conversations will be unique to this place and this constellation of participants. And I imagine that some of our conversations will echo conversations we've had in other cities -- and also with other communities via videoconference when our lives, finances, and "day jobs" haven't permitted us to visit in person. (If you are in a place which is not on our itinerary, and would like to speak with us about your hopes and dreams for the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, email [email protected] and we'll do our best to set up a videoconference!)

I know that our time in Vancouver will be too brief to adequately have all of the conversations we want and need to have. (And don't even ask me whether we're going to do any sightseeing. We're flying out today, and back via a redeye on Sunday night; this is the very definition of "short and sweet.") Our mantra has become "to be continued," because every conversation is inevitably only part of the story, and there is always more that we can learn. But even though it won't be "enough" time, I know it's going to be delightful. We can't wait to daven, listen, and learn at Or Shalom this weekend. To our hevre (friends) in Vancouver, we look forward to seeing you soon! And to everyone else, stay tuned; I'll aim to report back next week with notes from the road.


Tabernacle

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The Tabernacle at the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, built 1879.

 

We took a ferry to Martha's Vineyard not knowing what exactly we wanted to see. Our friends with whom we were vacationing offered to watch our kid for the day, which meant we had the option of exploring as grownups -- walking as much as our feet would bear, snapping photographs of things we found interesting, stopping to read on park benches -- the way we used to do before our son was born. Our feet led us to the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, also known as Wesleyan Grove.

Back in the 1800s, there was a trend of summer religious camp meetings. People would come and set up temporary housing -- canvas tents, sometimes with wooden floors, sometimes with floors of earth and straw -- and several times a day, preachers would give over the gospel and the community would pray. Martha's Vineyard was home to the first religious camp meeting site in the United States. A group of Methodists set up camp here in what they described as a venerable oak grove.

19524844593_bd33796d6d_zAs the camp became established, a few things began to shift. The central preaching area became covered by a big canvas tent, and then by a giant wrought-iron open-air worship space called the Tabernacle -- still used today.

Those who came to camp for the summers stayed initially in small canvas tents with wooden floors and ornately scalloped canvas rooflines. When canvas became scarce, because of the American Civil War, families began erecting small wooden cottages instead -- with similar scalloped roofs.

Some say the cottages are meant to be reminiscent of the old canvas tents. Others say their designs are meant to evoke churches. They have double front doors which open like church doors, framed by the kind of windows one often sees in churches too.

In the one cottage which is open as a museum, we saw a framed yellowing printed sheet bearing the original campground rules. Those rules indicated, among other things, that a light was to be kept burning in each tent (or house) all night, not to be allowed to go out.

I don't know why that rule was established. Maybe, as the cottage museum guide speculated, it was to prevent hanky-panky in what was then a very conservative religious campground. (We also learned that when a secular summer resort was established nearby, the religious leaders built a 7-foot wall to keep bad influences out!) But reading it, I couldn't help thinking of the repeated exhortation in Leviticus that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (See my Torah poem for parashat Tzav.)

I suspect my mind went immediately to the נר תמיד / ner tamid, the eternal light which burned in the Tabernacle (and which now burns in every synagogue) because these cottages are juxtaposed with a "Tabernacle" -- an English translation of our Hebrew משכן / mishkan, the portable tabernacle which our spiritual ancestors built so that the Presence of God could dwell within it -- or within them. (The Hebrew in Exodus 25:8 is ambiguous: "Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell within...")

Sitting in the wrought-iron Tabernacle, all I could think was: wow, it would be fun to lead a Jewish Renewal Shabbat service here with my hevre! I still remember my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat evening services, in the tent at the edge of the meadow at the old Elat Chayyim. There was a kind of tent-revival feel, and not only because we were literally davening in an open-sided white canvas tent. I'd like to daven in the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Tabernacle someday.

 

Photo source.