Portland teen feels at home in Cuban synagogue
By Deborah Moon
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Rachel June-Graber said the highlight of her 11-day trip to Cuba with 24 Catlin Gabel classmates was the evening she left the group to attend Shabbat services at the Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana.
“It might seem that going to a Shabbat service just like one I might encounter in the United States would not be a uniquely Cuban experience, but … it was amazing to feel at home a thousand miles from Oregon,” said the junior, who took a taxi to services while her high school friends and teachers went to a cannon ceremony.
All 25 students and four adults had visited Beth Shalom earlier that day taking humanitarian supplies and medicines for the pharmacy run by the Jewish community. They were invited to return for services. June-Garber said that teacher Roberto Villa encouraged her to return on her own for Shabbat services.
“When I first arrived, I was nervous being on my own, but as soon as I got inside I was greeted warmly by the young man who had given us a tour earlier that day,” she said in an e-mail interview. “The people were warm and inviting, and many times I was greeted with ‘Shabbat Shalom.’”
A member of Congregation Beth Israel, where she and her mother study Hebrew once a week, June-Garber said she found it easy to follow the Hebrew prayers.
“The synagogue in Havana is gorgeous and well-cared for,” she said. “Although the (Jewish) community in Cuba is small, it is vibrant and the people are very committed to keeping it going.”
Given the U.S. government’s tightening restrictions on travel to Cuba, it has been rare for a school group to visit Cuba in the past four years, according to a Catlin Gabel press release. Catlin Gabel is an independent, non-sectarian, progressive coeducational day school in Southwest Portland serving 730 students from preschool through 12th grade.
The visit was made possible by a personal invitation from the Cuban ministry of education to Roberto Villa, a Catlin Gabel high school Spanish teacher who led student trips to Cuba in 2001 and 2003. Villa met with the ministry in 2007, and they formally invited him to visit again with a Catlin Gabel group.
During their 11 days in Cuba, the students and teachers met with Cuban health care officials, teachers, students, cultural leaders and icons. The main purpose of the March 23 to April 3 trip was humanitarian, with the students and their chaperones carrying medical supplies, as well as school and athletic supplies for their Cuban counterparts.
When June-Garber learned the group would be visiting the Jewish community, she decided to take religious items to donate as well. She said she found a great Web site about the Jews of Cuba (www.jewishcuba.org), which lists supplies the community needs.
“My mom and I talked to the synagogue, and we got kippot, mezuzot and yarzeit candles for me to take to the synagogue,” she said.
“I think it would be really neat if a Jewish group from Portland could take a trip to Cuba to visit the communities and deliver supplies,” she said.