10 SAR seniors experience Judaism in Havana


The plane carrying 10 students from SAR High School in Riverdale to Cuba took off at 5 am on Sunday, Jan. 14, but planning began months earlier. The Spanish language students, accompanied on the trip by two teachers, had been collecting donations that amounted to over 500 pounds of medication, toiletries and other essentials for Jewish Cubans.

The first full day in Cuba began with a lecture by former Cuban diplomat turned university professor Camilo Lopez-Trigo, who said the United States’ embargo was an “economic war against Cuba” that imposed struggles on the Cuban people.

The SAR group then visited the Patronato (Beth Shalom), a Conservative Ashkenazic synagogue that, despite many congregants having emigrated, still maintains a thriving Sunday school. The synagogue also operates a pharmacy and food pantry.

The students cleaned the steps of the main entrance so the synagogue would continue to sparkle. Noah Marks called it a “meaningful and rewarding act of chesed, and a great way to help Cuban Jewry.”

The group participated in a walking tour in Old Havana, taking in the neighborhood’s beauty and poverty and learning about Cuba’s rich history. Samantha Feit described the experience as “incredibly eye-opening and meaningful. Despite often living in terrible conditions, the people live joyfully and walk the streets with smiles on their faces.”

The next day, speaker Marta Nuñez Sarmiento, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Havana, discussed gender roles in Cuban society. Then the students packed the bus, or la guagua, with all of their gifts for the Jewish community.

The first stop was at the local fruit market to pick up produce for the Jewish seniors. After hopping back on la guagua, they continued to El Centro Hebreo Sefaradí de Cuba to converse and socialize with 30 Jewish seniors, trading pieces of chocolate for hugs and kisses. Many of the students played games with them while others sat and talked about their lives.

The students learned that most of their children have made aliyah or left the country for other destinations, and several have grandchildren currently serving in the IDF.

“As we left, tears poured down my face,” said Jason Kwalwasser, one of the trip’s organizers, whose family is Cuban. “After only just learning that many of these individuals were my tía’s childhood friends, I was bespeckled with kisses from all of the women with the message, ‘One for you and one for your family’.”

Afterward, the group stopped at the Jewish cemetery, founded in the 20th century but still operating, where they weeded and learned about influential members of the Cuban Jewish community.

The next activity was to learn traditional Israeli circle dance and Cuban salsa dance from Cuban Jewish teens. Honor Greenberg poignantly noted, “Even though we come from vastly different backgrounds, we connected with the Jewish Cuban teens over delicious food and a fun evening. Sharing our experiences in both Spanish and English helped bridge our cultural gap in a fun and meaningful way.”

To end the day, the group went to El Cañonazo, a centuries-old Havanese ritual signifying the closure of Havana Bay for the night.

The final day began with an early morning wake-up because of a minyan on the occasion of the yahrzeit of the mother of Rabino Drelich, an SAR Judaic Studies teacher who accompanied the group. He describes the experience as being “filled with gratitude, especially that many of the participants for the minyan spent over an hour in a taxi in order to help make a minyan for someone they never met before.”

After a quick visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana, they loaded onto la guagua to see Muraleando.

On the outskirts of Havana, their tour guide, Victor, explained how he and a couple other local artists cleaned up the local garbage dump to create a free museum and art center for children. Using trash found during the renovation, the artists made beautiful murals that extend beyond the walls of the building and into the surrounding streets.

The most amazing part was that this was all volunteer work, with the workers’ only motivation being to help their communities.

How can they leave Havana without riding in the cars from the 1950s prevalent on the city’s streets? So they drove through the city in vintage American cars without seatbelts or a roof.

The final night echoed the sounds of banging drums, shaking maracas, and a performance of the iconic song, “Guantanamera.” The experience was so impactful that Sydney Fishkin realized, “I want to spend a year abroad in a Spanish-speaking country to fully immerse myself in the culture.”

While they did not return with rum or cigars, the students’ perspectives have forever changed.

“When I spoke to our tour guide, Nubia, I was struck by her perspective on life,” Avielle Shiller explained. “While she and many other Cubans live on a low monthly income, she still has a positive attitude and makes the most of everything she has. I now see and appreciate my own life so differently.”

The trip was chaperoned by Bonnie Myers, SAR HS Spanish teacher, who worked hard to provide the students with a truly memorable experience.