Shalom Cuba: a smaller, thriving Jewish community

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When you think of Cuba you probably envision beautiful sandy beaches, royal palm trees, Latin rhythm and jazz, rum, cigars, Fidel, communism, old cars and so on. And you’d be right. But would you imagine a small, but thriving Jewish community that once numbered close to 20,000 members, five synagogues, Rabbis and kosher food flown in from Mexico or South America?
This is the short story of my family’s visit to Jewish Cuba a few weeks ago.
Many Jews arrived in Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and Jewish presence has remained there ever since.
In my post-university years, following Leadership Development training at the Canadian Jewish Congress, I was actively involved in heading up the local committee first for Jews in Arab Lands, and subsequently the Cuban Jewry Relief Committee. This latter group always left me with the desire to visit this intriguing, and somewhat mysterious, community. So my trip to Cuba was essentially a decades long mission on my bucket list sandwiched in between six days at a lovely resort.
As happenstance would have it, while walking through Old Havana, we passed by the old Orthodox Shul. Squished between nondescript, run down buildings, gated and locked, one could easily pass right by, none the smarter. But being the curious types we wanted to know as much as possible about anything and everything that had a hint of Jewishness. We had questions and and we wanted answers.
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Inscription adorning the Sinagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel in Old Havana (Feb. 2017)

Although the Synagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel was locked up, an old man wearing a very noticeable Magen David (Star of David) stood outside, answering questions for any curious tourists passing by. For Montrealers, it was like standing in front of Zaida’s or even great-grandfather’s shul on the Main, St. Lawrence Boulevard.
There we met two Jewish Cuban expats, who introduced themselves as ‘Jewbans’. Visiting from Orlando, Florida, on a Family Reunification visa, they were most excited to visit the synagogues of their grandparents and their grave sites in the Jewish cemetery. Their Cuban Jewish patriarchs went back seven generations.
The ‘Jewbans’ told us that their uncle and father had been Bar Mitzvahed in the synagogue we stood in front of, and the one we were about to visit.
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The Nashen Family visiting Temple Beth Shalom, the Grand Synagogue of Cuba (Feb. 2017)

Temple Beth Shalom is also known as the Gran Sinagoga de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, located in the posh neighbourhood of Vedado. Beth Shalom Synagogue, known by Jewish Cubans as the ‘Patronato‘, is Cuba’s major Jewish community centre.
Designed by famed architect Aquiles Capablanca and founded in 1953, the Gran Sinagoga maintains its striking facade with the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel and a modernist arch rising to the heavens. In recent years, the Patronato has become a crossroads for Jews from all over the world.
In the absence of any antisemitism in Cuba, the doors were wide open and we walked in freely without any questions by anyone. What a great feeling.
Workers were busy renovating the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) and other areas of the sanctuary. The Shul used to be Orthodox but in recent years became Conservative.
Ernesto Hernandez Miyares approached us and offered to show us a round and answer any questions. Ernesto is the hi-tech expert and secretary of the Shul and didn’t hesitate to proudly show off his unique and lively centre.
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Nearby the Orthodox Synagogue in Old Havana we stumbled upon this gated, closed parkette with a large, brass Menorah. There was no sign or description anywhere? Do you know the story behind this? If so, please leave a comment.

Ernesto is the son of Jewish emigres from Turkey. His wife comes from generations of Russian Jewish lineage. Their 18 year old son was to be making Aliyah in a matter of days. The couple hope to visit him on their first visit to Israel next year. Coincidentally, their son will go to Beer Sheva, Jewish Montreal’s twin city.
In 1959, there were more than 15,000 Jews in Cuba, Ernesto explained. Now, 800 remain in Havana alone, 1500 in all of Cuba.
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The Jewish Federation of Cuba

The Patronato houses the Jewish library, and regular festivals in their communal hall downstairs. Upstairs, they house a small pharmacy for community members and a room outfitted by ORT.  Shabbat services are held every week.
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Cuban Jewish Community President Adela Dworin with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the funeral of Fidel Castro, Nov. 2016. This photo hangs in the Patronato in Havana. (Glenn J. Nashen, Feb. 2017)

Wonderful photos of celebration and VIP visits decorate a wall. There, one particular shot jumped out at me. It was a portrait of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau alongside the Cuban Jewish community president, Adela Dworin.
Ernesto, and Vice-President David Prinstein recounted how Trudeau made a special visit to the Jewish community during last year’s visit for the funeral of Fidel Castro. I didn’t recall any publicity around such a meeting and took some pride in learning about this.
We thanked our hosts for this special visit and received a nice souvenir for my son, a bracelet displaying “Shalom Cuba”. How fitting.
We were invited to come back and visit again, Next time with Justin Trudeau.
Shalom from Cuba!

Synagogue proposed for Mackle Road next to Cavendish Mall, public info meeting April 3

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At last night’s Public Council Meeting the City of Cote Saint-Luc dealt with a request from the Fondation Sepharade Kollel Avrechim who wish to construct a synagogue on Mackle Road, backing onto the Cavendish Mall parking lot.

In recent years, the new homes on Kellert, and the four lots on Mackle between Kellert and the Mall parking entrance were added to District 6, which I represent. This property is the eastern-most point in the district.

The notice of motion was read aloud and City Council adopted the first draft bylaw to begin the zoning amendment process required to render the residential land for institutional use.

In fact, the property is currently composed of two lots that are currently zoned for a semi‐detached dwelling. The amendment would change the zoning from residential to institutional use.

The Fondation Sepharade Kollel Avrechim is a religious institution that currently occupies, and conducts its affairs at 5750 Parkhaven Avenue. They are seeking to re-establish itself in a new premises to be built on a lot at 6790-6792 Mackle Road.

Rabbi Yehuda Benoliel is the spiritual leader of the congregation.

The City, having officially adopted the notice of motion and first reading of the bylaw, has started the legal steps for the request for rezoning.

The residents within the adjacent zones (neighbouring streets) are the ultimate decision makers. The law requires that eligible residents can demand a register to be opened for any neighbour that chooses to contest the rezoning.

The next step is a provincially-mandated public information meeting on April 3, 2017 at 7:30 P.M. as required by law. Interested residents should attend this meeting at City Hall to learn about the project, ask questions and get answers in order to decide for themselves if they agree with the rezoning.

A public notice is then given around mid to end of April for those residents who ultimately wish to sign a register to force a referendum on the issue.

Meanwhile, a sign will be placed by the City in front of the property so that all residents may be adequately informed about the proposed changes. More information about the rezoning is available by calling the Cote Saint-Luc Urban Development Department at 514-485-6800.

Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada on Purim

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Ottawa, Ontario

March 10, 2017

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today issued the following statement on Purim:
“Tomorrow at sunset, Jewish communities in Canada and around the world will join together to celebrate Purim.
“Purim is a joyous holiday where loved ones wear costumes, exchange gifts, give to charity, and partake in traditional feasts.
“During this time, friends and family will come together to read the Megillah, which tells the story of how Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai saved the Jewish people from persecution in ancient Persia.
“We honour this celebration of triumph over persecution and oppression as both a testament to the resilience, bravery, and joy of the Jewish people, and as a reaffirmation of our responsibility to stand against anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and prejudice. The government denounces recent acts of anti-Semitism, and other acts of religious intolerance, in the strongest terms. We cannot – and will not – tolerate any expressions of hatred and discrimination in our communities.
“On behalf of all Canadians and our family, Sophie and I wish all those celebrating a joyous Purim.
“Chag Purim Sameach!”

Fauda creator Lior Raz packs the hall

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Fauda creator Lior Raz at Theatre St. Denis

Fauda creator Lior Raz at Theatre St. Denis

Federation CJA hit a home run by bringing in the Netflix blockbuster Israeli hit series, Fauda. Lior Raz spoke to a packed house at the Theatre St. Denis Monday night after selling out the first two venues within hours of going on sale.

Raz spoke about his humble childhood as the son of Iraqi immigrants who worked alongside Arab neighbours. He learned to speak impeccable Arabic and seamlessly switched back and forth among his two languages and cultures. Eventually he became a valuable IDF commando given his “dual” persona. He spoke glowingly of his military family, about infiltration to the other side in the protection of the State of Israel and the Jewish People, about the loss of his “brothers” in war and of his girlfriend to terrorism.

Once out of the service, he became an actor and was interested in developing a TV series depicting both sides in the ongoing conflict. As the idea of Fauda, Arabic for ‘chaos”, developed he was concerned that there would be no following.

“I thought only my parents would watch it,” the entertaining, humorous story-teller, Raz, told the audience. In its first season, Fauda would go on to capture an audience of more than 60% of the Israeli population, the number one show in the country. Netflix picked it up and suddenly the show was broadcast around the world to more than 200 countries.

Raz proudly accepted many standing ovations as he told many behind the scenes stories in the development and shooting of Fauda. People thought I was crazy in bringing together Palestinians and Israeli Jews in creating this series, he told the audience. Fauda is shot in Israeli towns with actors from both communities collaborating.

Raz was most proud in demonstrating the high level of morals and humanity of Israel in its existential efforts at safeguarding its citizens. In so doing he has brought this message of the Jewish State’s longing for peace to the entire world.

The first season of Fauda is available on Netflix. It is in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. Dubbed versions in multiple languages are also options but to get the real feel of the high-stress, action-packed series watch in the native languages with subtitles. Season 2 filming begins this summer and will hit the air in November.

Lior made his mark on Montreal’s Jewish community, and beyond, and his local fan base is immense. Judging from comments on the way out of the theatre, and since, his personal appearance and lengthy standing ovations solidified impressions that he is an international entertainment sensation to follow. I wish Lior much luck and continued success.

The event was part of Federation CJA‘s centennial celebration.

 

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Read more on Mike Cohen’s blog

Listen to Lior Raz interviewed on CBC As It Happens

Housefather asks for apology re SS St. Louis’ denial of entry in 1939

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By Isaac Olson

Free Press, Feb. 14, 2017

 

In a speech delivered during an emergency immigration debate on January 30, MP Anthony Housefather, representing the Mount Royal riding, called on the federal government to issue an apology for refusing the entry of over 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis in 1939.

Rising to his feet in the house of commons as he has done several times since taking office, Housefather was taking part in a discussion centred around the controversial travel and immigration restrictions in the United States.

During the speech, Housefather reminded Canadians that there have been times in this country’s history where the United States has been more welcoming.

“I’ve heard a lot of congratulatory comments tonight about how in Canada we’re different – how in Canada we have had this incredible tradition of bringing in immigrants and refugees and we’ve always done it,” said Housefather, who acknowledged that this has been true for the last few decades. However, he added, “that has not always been true.”

Housefather said he was inspired to make the leap from municipal to federal politics after Quebec’s “separatist government” proposed its “charter of values,” which would have required him to “fire people because they were going to wear a kippah, or a hijab, or a turban to work.” He cited the religious freedom rally that was held in Côte St. Luc in 2013 when that debate was taking place. As mayor, he led a charge against the charter and now, looking back on that time, he said it shows that Canadian politicians “are no different here than they are elsewhere” because people can always capitalize on xenophobia and spark fear in the population.

Citing President Donald Trump’s executive order as an American issue, he said there is still a lot to learn from this debate such as the importance of not putting forward policies without public consultation or ensuring that an order is legal under a country’s constitution. He encouraged Canada to continue such practices of vetting policies thoroughly before pushing them forward. He said orders should not be made retroactively so as to affect people with valid visas in transit and it is important not to enact laws that discriminate against people of certain countries or religions.

This, he said, is where it is important to remember Canada’s history, citing the many ethnic and religious groups that have been excluded from the country. The SS St. Louis, he said, was among those rejected. The Jewish refugees had Cuban visas but the Caribbean country changed its rules last minute and turned them away. The ship was then denied entry into the United States and Canada.

“I hope one day Canada will apologize for what happened with the St. Louis,” said Housefather. “We should always remember that this could happen here. We have to be vigilant.”

The full video is available on Housefather’s YouTube page.

Wonderful Chanukah Greetings

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As the holiday of lights and freedom approaches I take great pride and satisfaction in hearing encouraging words, during these troubling times, from leaders near and far.

Our illustrious MP, Anthony Housefather, has worked tirelessly to bring an open, pluralistic approach to ‘Hanukkah on the Hill’. In every speech, at every opportunity, the dynamic legislator innately rallies Canadians to think generously of those around them with his ever so optimistic perspective that we are all Canadians no matter how background. I salute him for spreading a message of hope and inclusion in a true Canadian spirit.

I am also grateful that our Prime Minister has shown, within a very short time in office, a genuine interest in forging a close relationship with the Jewish community. To be sure, there are a number of key players in the Canadian Jewish community that within the PM’s sphere of influence, including Housefather. But I do believe that Trudeau has the right convictions within him.

 

President Barak Obama delivered a meaningful speech at the White House in celebration of Chanukah, invoking the memory of Elie Wiesel by inviting the wife, children and grandchildren of the late beacon of memory of the Six Million. What’s more, the President kindled the handmade menorah of Wiesel’s granddaughter.

 

What struck me significantly this month was a leading article in the Ste-Agathe newspaper questioning whether a Chanukah Menorah ought to be permitted in a public place. So many responses were negative, seeking to extinguish the lights of the candelabra, all the while approving the public display of the Christmas Tree, the Cross and the Nativity Scene.

I found this to be a sad statement given the overt anti-semitism in this Laurentian paradise just a generation ago. Rather than barking angrily at my fellow Quebecers I decided this should be a moment to teach, to learn and to reach out in the spirit of the holidays in hopes that more people would be influenced and perhaps become more tolerant. You can see my comments and the full discussion here. Maybe you’d also like to reach out as I’ve tried to do.

 

 

And so, I hope that we all can learn to become a little more tolerant during these troubling times, a little kinder to one another, a little more respectful. This is the universal message that I draw from the bright light of the Chanukah Menorah. And in this spirit, and in borrowing Anthony’s words, I hope that no matter your background, your language or your religion, that you too draw inspiration from this little light of mine and that it shines bright upon you and those you hold close, and upon all people.

Happy Chanukah.

Chabad celebrates 30 years in enriching Cote Saint-Luc

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Rabbi Mendel Raskin (3rd from right) and sons welcomes the MP, Mayor and Councillor

Rabbi Mendel Raskin (3rd from right) and sons welcomes the MP, Mayor and Councillor

It hardly took 30 years for Rabbi Mendel and Sarah Raskin to make an indelible mark on the City of Cote Saint-Luc. Since first laying ground in an upper duplex on Earle Road back in 1986 a lot has changed for the Raskins, for Chabad CSL and for the city and its residents.

The Raskins are no ordinary CSL couple, but then again, who is? Having grown up as a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenaz in, of all places, Morocco, Cote Saint-Luc was as good a posting as any for the adventurous young rabbi and his New Yorker bride, Sarah.

Fast forward three decades. Hoo ha, has our city changed. From a few mainstream large synagogues and a single Jewish elementary and high school the city has morphed into a rich and vibrant community housing many centres of religion, culture and education, weaving together Ashkenazis and Sephardim, and recent arrivals from France, Argentina and other communities around the world.

The Raskins can be mighty proud of their contributions in infusing Judaism for the masses by organizing festivals, parades, concerts, holiday and weekly services, summer and winter camps, excursions, festive meals, education seminars, guest speakers and more.

Cllr. Glenn J. Nashen, MP Anthony Housefather and Mayor Mitchell Brownstein all smiles at the Chabad 30th anniversary gala evening

Cllr. Glenn J. Nashen, MP Anthony Housefather and Mayor Mitchell Brownstein all smiles at the Chabad 30th anniversary gala evening

Meanwhile, their wonderful and enthusiastic children have carried on in the “family business” by reaching out not only here at home but elsewhere within the Chabad movement, including Montego Bay, Jamaica!

My wife Judy and I are fortunate to have been invited to many of the Raskins events throughout the years and to have gotten to know them and appreciate their subtle and inspiring ways. We were equally overjoyed to help celebrate the 30th anniversary celebrations last week at the opulent and classy edifice known as the Hechel Menachem CSL Chabad Synagogue on Kildare Road.

L-R: Jacob Kincler, Cllr. Dida Berku, Cllr. Glenn J. Nashen, MP Anthony Housefather, Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, Elaine Yagod. All four elected officials served as mayor of Cote Saint-Luc in the past 12 months.

L-R: Jacob Kincler, Cllr. Dida Berku, Cllr. Glenn J. Nashen, MP Anthony Housefather, Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, Elaine Yagod. All four elected officials served as mayor of Cote Saint-Luc in the past 12 months.

Together with our good friends and colleagues Mayor Mitchell Brownstein and the First Lady of CSL Elaine Yagod, Cllr. Dida Berku and the affable Jacob Kincler, rookie Cllr. (and old workmate) Sidney Benizri and his wife Sandra Papagouras, district Cllr. and lifelong buddy Mike Cohen and omnipresent Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather we all congratulated the Raskin family and their key supporters on a job well done and continued success.

Our city and community and the world are strengthened by the Raskins unending and universal efforts in spreading kindness and good deeds to all. May Rabbi Mendel and Sarah Raskin and their family continue to go from Strength to Strength.

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