On 1st trip abroad, Cubans boost Jewish know-how here

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Two Cuban Jewish leaders, allowed to leave their country for the first time, say their trip to the Bay Area is far from a vacation.

Andres Novoa Castiel and Jorge Rivero Behar have been studying Hebrew, Torah and prayer every day for the past two weeks. They have been participating in religious services at Congregations Netivot Shalom and Beth Israel, both in Berkeley.

And before leaving later this month, they will attend the 22nd annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education. The national event convenes this year in Palo Alto, starting Sunday.

"The main objective is to get as much learning as we can to transmit to our community," said Novoa Castiel, who organizes services and holiday celebrations at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva in Santiago de Cuba. The progress they can make here in a month would take years to achieve in Santiago, he said.

Santiago de Cuba's sole congregation was reborn after the communist dictatorship relaxed its anti-religion laws in 1991.

Hatikva has about 90 members but no regular rabbi. It still relies heavily on foreign visitors to teach about Judaism and exclusively on volunteer lay leaders to put the new knowledge into practice.

"I know my community needs this," Novoa Castiel said of his studies here. "But I also enjoy it."

The pair, who have a good grasp of English, arrived July 31. They will leave separately — one after Shabbat ends on Aug. 23 and one on Aug. 25.

Rivero Behar already has picked up American Jewish educator lingo, saying he is learning about "family education."

"It's teaching the people the meaning of what it is to be a Jew, how it feels to be a Jewish family…how to take your Jewish life from synagogue to your house," said the 24-year-old, who leads a 20-member group for Jewish teens and young adults.

Novoa Castiel began learning Hebrew two years ago in Cuba. He can now read from the Torah but hopes to someday understand every word of the text.

Despite his devotion to study, Novoa Castiel said the trip's most important lesson so far has been recognizing his ties to Jews here.

"I think the most important thing I've learned is that Jewish people, no matter where they live, are one people," the 38-year-old said. Jews here have been so friendly and familial, he said, that "we have almost nothing to miss."

Their trip, which could only be arranged with the special permission of both governments, was financed primarily by members of Netivot Shalom and Beth Israel. Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham also helped. CAJE, which invited the pair to its conference and a pre-conference event that began Thursday, gave them full scholarships.

The two Cubans also traveled to Los Angeles last week to visit a Sephardic education center and the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

Netivot Shalom, which is Hatikva's sister congregation, has organized two trips to Cuba within the past two years. A third trip, for families, is set for December to celebrate Chanukah.

June Safran, a member of both Netivot Shalom and Beth Israel, led the two previous trips, organized the pair's visit here and opened her family's home to the Cubans.

"I want to help them help themselves," she said.