Hella Eskenazi, director of the Albert Einstein Hebrew School in Havana, discusses the revival of Jewish education in Cuba
by MICHAEL AVROM APPLEMAN
As a graduate of Minneapolis Torah Academy and Bet Hamidrash Talmud Torah, I had easy access to Jewish education. But Jewish Cubans are and were not as fortunate.
In October, in a series of humanitarian missions, I sat down with Hella Eskenazi, principal of the Albert Einstein school in Havana. Hella (pronounced “Ella”) has been a friend and colleague for 10 years. She willingly shared the dramatic and nearly heart-wrenching story of Cuban Hebrew education.
Gratitude and recognition are owed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the tenacity of Jewish Cubans for the existing, vibrant Albert Einstein School in Havana. For Jews, whose religion nearly perished for three decades after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, are now learning Hebrew, Torah reading, Jewish history and Israeli dance.
During the Revolution, Castro nationalized businesses and property. When he imposed his dictatorship, many Jews left the country. Most left for the United States, Mexico and Venezuela, or made aliya.
The remaining Jews were nearly lost, intermarrying and prohibited from practicing Judaism until 1990. The Jewish population seemingly went from 15,000 to 1,500 overnight. Six Jewish schools and five synagogues ceased functioning. Jews could not, and did not, associate with Judaism.
But today, there is a thrilling rebirth and revival of Jewish educational system in Havana. Synagogues have been renovated and restored. Jewish knowledge is skyrocketing, due to a dynamic director (who is also a martial arts champ) and 14 volunteer Hebrew teachers.
Asked about the rebirth of Jewish education after the Revolution, Eskenazi explained that “it started in 1989. There had been no religious education nor practice for 30 years.” According to Eskenazi, the Pope influenced Castro to allow religious practice for all religions, after which “Doctor Alberto Michulam, a pediatrician, decided to open a small Hebrew school of 30 students.”
Jewish Cubans, like all Cubans, are poor, with a per capita income of $25 per month. Eskenazi explains how Jewish education is paid for. “The JDC imported professional Jewish couples from Argentina as well as employing Rabbi Shmuel Steinhendler from Chile. The Argentinians and the Rabbi trained and taught our teachers on how to be Jewish — an alien concept! They renovated the dilapidated synagogue, hired teachers, taught rikudim (Israeli folk dancing) and established Jewish camps. Because of the embargo and Americans not speaking Spanish, the JDC in Buenos Ares sent Spanish teachers, books, and other instructional materials to Havana.”
The school also does outreach to other Cuban cities and provinces. “Our teachers go to Guantanamo, Santi Espiritus, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos,” Eskenazi says. “Challenging, yet not impossible.”
“In 1989 there were 30 students,” Eskenazi explains, but that number is growing. “In 2000 we had 85 students. In 2011, we literally knocked on the door of members of the community to bring in more children. We named the school Albert Einstein, the school name before the Revolution. We exploded from 30 to 185 students. There are now only 135 — for 15 families made aliya.
Eskenazi describes the school: “There are 14 volunteer teachers.” Classes are broken down into age groups, from four- to 15-year-old, and two adult classes. “The inspired children brought in their parents and their grandparents!” Eskenazi says.
She describes a typical day: “Four buses pick up the children very early in the morning. We provide breakfast. We sing the Cuban national anthem, ‘El Himno de Beyamo,’ and ‘Hatikva.’” At the end of the day there are classes and workshops, including dance, crafts and art.
Hella then politely but suddenly ended the interview to prepare for the opening of fall classes the next day.
Dr. Michael Avrom Appleman is married to Mickey Appleman and the father of Alaina (Aaron), Joshua (Negin) and Danielle Appleman. He is CEO and founder of CubanoGallery.com, which supports humanitarian efforts in Cuba.
(American Jewish World, 11.17.17)