Local people, places, travels and simchas

Jewish Cuba

From Dec. 9 to 18, Barbara Esmond traveled on Road Scholar’s “Shalom Cuba” bus tour. Sixteen participants explored the Jewish heritage of this island nation.

Barbara Esmond, right, with Adela Dworin in the El Patronato lobby in Cuba
Barbara Esmond, right, with Adela Dworin in the El Patronato lobby in Cuba

The group carried donations of school, medical and religious goods to augment government rationing and short supplies. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides the majority of funds to help support Cuban synagogues, run a religious school, provide welfare funding, pay for medicines and cover the cost of Shabbat meals. Other economic and spiritual support comes from U.S. and Canadian federations and synagogues, B’nai B’rith, World ORT, Hadassah, visiting missions and other donors.

According to Barbara, there are approximately 1,300 Jews in Cuba’s small but vibrant Jewish population. There are seven Jewish communities, the largest being Havana, which has one Orthodox and two Conservative synagogues. There is one kosher butcher, but no rabbi. Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler travels from Santiago, Chile, periodically to teach and officiate at lifecycle events. Barbara’s group visited both Conservative synagogues, El Patronato (Beth Shalom) and Centro Sefaradi. Adela Dworin is president of the Jewish community in Cuba and of El Patronato, Cuba’s largest congregation with 320 members (80 families). Friday night services attract 60 to 65 people, with a chicken dinner provided for attendees; Saturday morning draws 40 to 45. This community center also has a pharmacy, library and religious school. The Sefaradi synagogue has a Sunday school for younger children; teenagers attend the Patronato school. The Sefaradi houses the Mitrani Senior Center, plus members provide for the home-bound community, according to its president, Dr. Mayra Levy.

David Tacher, president of the Comunidad Tikun Olam in Santa Clara is proud of his newly remodeled synagogue. They have 21 members; last year, 19 members made aliyah. Jews are allowed to move to Israel, an action considered by the Cuban government as going home. While Esmond was in Santa Clara, a group of college students sponsored by the Austin, Texas JCC was there helping to maintain the cemetery, which houses a Holocaust memorial. Cuban emigrés living in the United States send money for cemetery upkeep.

Cienfuegos has 20 Jews in five families. Four of the families were present at the once-a-month Friday night service the Road Scholar group attended in community president Rebeca Langus’ living room. Following services, the tour group hosted the community for dinner. In attendance were a brother and sister, Rafael and Roxana Gonzalez, gold medalists in team archery at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this past summer. Cuba has also sent youth on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

Rounding out the itinerary, Barbara’s memories of the sojourn include the Bay of Pigs Museum; Hemingway Farm; Buena Vista Social Club performance; Las Terrazas, a UNESCO biosphere reserve; and miles of just-harvested rice that was spread out on the road to dry. She found Road Scholar’s itinerary fascinating, the Cuban people warm and welcoming, and Cuba a destination to which she would like to return.

We are family

The popular disco song, “We Are Family,” performed at Bar Mitzvah and wedding parties, truly exemplifies the close-knit Holtzman clan.

B’not Mitzvah celebrants Sophie Holtzman (left) and Lola Maas
B’not Mitzvah celebrants Sophie Holtzman (left) and Lola Maas

On Dec. 26, first cousins Sophie Holtzman and Lola Maas became B’not Mitzvah at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital Synagogue in Jerusalem. Rabbi Myra Hovar of Jerusalem officiated. The girls led the Thursday morning service, read from the Torah and gave the d’var Torah. Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim prepared them for this rite of passage. On Feb. 7, the celebrants will lead the Friday evening service, chant a haftorah and give short speeches at Chaverim.

Following the Jerusalem service, as part of their mitzvah projects, the pair distributed toys on the hospital’s pediatric ward. In addition, throughout their Dec. 21 to Jan. 3 itinerary, Lola and the touring family entourage helped Sophie disperse Ben’s Bells’ message of kindness. The inscription on notes attached to the bells in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, read: “You have found a Ben’s Bell. Take it home, hang it and remember to spread kindness throughout our world.”

The group of 28 traveled with their own bus and guide. According to Sophie and Lola’s grandmother Barbara Holtzman, this journey, her eighth trip to our homeland, was reminiscent of past Federation missions. During the winter/Christmas break, Barbara described the country as “teeming with Jewish and Christian missions and Birthright groups galore.” High points for the youth consisted of visiting the Western Wall, staying overnight in a Bedouin camp while enjoying camel rides and henna tattoos, floating in the Dead Sea, climbing Masada and walking through Petra, the Jordanian archaeological site.

Immediate Tucson family travelers were Barbara; Sophie’s parents, Kyra and Barney Holtzman, and sisters, Zoe and Naomi; and Lola’s mother, Billie Holtzman Maas, and sisters, Ellie (from Chicago) and Shira. Extended Tucson family included Mallory Aldrich, Anne and David Hameroff, Judy Schultz, and Sarah and Leonard Schultz. Former Tucsonans present were Harry Holtzman and his partner (from Paris) and Mollie Holtzman Hipp and her family (from North Carolina).

Babies on the bimah

Barbara Levkowitz with her youngest great-granddaughter, Halle
Barbara Levkowitz with her youngest great-granddaughter, Halle

It was a beautiful sight to behold four generations of Barbara Levkowitz’s family called to the Torah for an aliyah at Congregation Anshei Israel on Jan. 4. On the bimah were great-grandmother (“GG”) Barbara; her son Danny Levkowitz and his wife, Anita; her grandson Jeff Levkowitz, his wife, Emily, and their daughters, Sophia, 3, and Halle, 3 months; and grandson Brad Levkowitz, his wife, Andrea, and their twin daughters, Elliana and Samantha, 16 months. Since the baby namings took place in the Phoenix area where the grandsons and their families now reside, Barbara wanted to share the joy of her four great-granddaughters with her home congregation. Rabbi Robert Eisen thanked this longtime Tucson family for setting an example and lighting the way for our present and future generations. A kiddish followed with Anshei Israel family and friends kvelling. A hearty mazel tov to the entire mishpacha!

Time to share

Keep me posted — 319-1112. L’shalom.