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March 19, 2004 - Image 88

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-03-19

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Havana High

Gran Sthagoga
Bet Shalom

With her bat mitzvah money, a New Jersey gir helps Cuban kids.




ost bar and bat mitz-
vahs are marked by
learning — and some
by expensive catering.
But when Jennifer Recant recalls her
bat mitzvah, she'll remember dirty
clothes draped from dingy windowsills
and weary old cars rattling through
the tattered streets of Havana.
Jennifer, a student at the Solomon
Schechter of Bergen County in New
Jersey, chose to spend her bat mitzvah
money in a rather unique way: She
donated more than $600 to the
American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC) to finance the bar
and bat mitzvah celebrations of six
young teens in Havana.
Jennifer and her father, Will Recant,
who is in charge of Latin American
relations for the JDC, subsequently
traveled to Cuba with 30 others on a
UJA-Federation of New York mission.
They attended the bar mitzvah of
Victor Prinstein. Jennifer calls the cer-
emony the highlight of my trip."
She has been aware of the plight of
Cuban Jews since her father began
working with the community in 1992,
after Cuban leader Fidel Castro
removed restrictions on religious prac-
tice. Three years ago, Will Recant trav-
eled with another daughter, Rebecca,
to Cuba after her bat mitzvah. After



that trip, Jennifer began thinking
about how to aid Cuba's Jews, many of
whom are impoverished and ignorant
about Judaism.
With the help of her father, Jennifer
contacted JDC workers overseas to
determine how she could help the
community. Seven months after her
bat mitzvah, Jennifer went to Cuba.
She visited a Sunday school that the
JDC recently had renovated. It teaches
more than 150 students, ranging in
age from 4 to 60. Classes are held in
the sanctuary because of a lack of
classroom space. The school also has a
small, free pharmacy for local Jews.
While in Cuba, Jennifer met most
of the kids who had been helped by
her money, and attended a special cer-
emony in her honor. "They were say-
ing things like, 'Jennifer is our god-
mother.' It felt good to hear that, and
to know that I had really helped," she
Though she doesn't speak Spanish,
bilingual guides — and the Cuban
kids' broken English — were enough
to overcome the language barrier. "We
played games and tried to speak to
each other and tell each other about
our lives," Jennifer said. "We also told
jokes and laughed a lot."
Jennifer was amazed at how
"deprived and appreciative" the

The revolution didn't specifically
Cubans were. When one woman in
target Jews, but the community suf-
the group gave Milky Way bars to the
fered economically, along with mem-
teens celebrating their bar and bat
bers of the middle class. The Cuban
mitzvahs, "they looked like they were
criminal code offered protection
in heaven."
against nationalistic, religious or racial
Jennifer also brought the staples of
hatred, but the community still had to
Jewish ritual life: Her school donated
Kiddush cups, mezuzzot, prayer shawls contend with a small degree of anti-
Semitism and anti-Zionism, given
and a Havdalah candle. The JDC,
Castro's strong embrace of the
Jennifer's family and her community
Palestine Liberation Organization and
in Wyckoff; N.J., also donated items
other anti-Israel groups.
ranging from Bibles and prayer books
Although Jews had
with Hebrew/Spanish
access to jobs
translations to simple
Above: Jen nifer Recant
after the
necessities, such as soap
visited the three syna-
and toothpaste.
gogues in Havana that
permitted to buy and
survived the revolution.
distribute kosher food
Community Flees
and were able to receive
At tight, Jennifer is with
donations of Passover
Before Castro came to
Victor Prinstein.
and New Year foods
power in a 1959 revolu-
from other countries.
tion, Cuba's Jewish popu-
Although the great
lation peaked at 15,000
people. Some 75 percent of them lived majority of Jewish Cuban emigres
eventually went to Miami, more than
in Havana. The capital had five syna-
400 Jews moved to Israel, thanks to
gogues, a kosher restaurant, a Jewish
high school and five Jewish elementary secret diplomatic efforts brokered by
the Canadian government. A 1990s
schools. An overwhelming majority of
program known as Operation Cigar
Cuba's Jews fled after the revolution.
depended on the help of Margarita
Today, roughly 1,100 Jews live in
Zapata, a relative of one of Fidel
Havana, with another 400 in Santiago
Castro's closest advisors. She apparent-
de Cuba, Guantanamo, Santa Clara,
Sancti Spiritu and Camaguey
HAVANA HIGH on page 40C

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