Teens learn a lesson while teaching Hebrew to Cubans

One of the most inspiring weeks of Yael Friedkin's life got off to a very bad start.

Friedkin, 18, was going to Cuba during her December break along with seven other East Bay teens and four adults to teach Hebrew to members of Santiago's Jewish community.

"Everything just kept going wrong," said Friedkin of Piedmont. First, a six-hour delay leaving San Francisco. Then, after the group made its connection in Dallas, its Mexico City-bound plane had to turn back after an hour. Too much volcanic ash in the air.

The group spent the night at the Dallas airport — their luggage was in Mexico City. The next morning, they scrambled to change their itinerary, flying instead to Cancun, then Havana and finally to Santiago. All the luggage was found, except for that belonging to trip leader June Safran. "Luckily we all packed underwear in our backpacks," Friedkin said.

They arrived one day late, without the 65 pounds of gifts, clothing, shoes and prayerbooks that were in Safran's suitcase. But all was not lost. The kosher salamis made it.

In the end, Friedkin said, it was all more than worthwhile. "I did so much in that short period of time and I learned so much."

For Safran, 62, who returned to Cuba again this month, the December expedition was the third teaching trip she had led to Santiago. But it was her first with teens. Although she admits that she was initially a bit hesitant about taking such a young group, afterward she raved about their teaching ability, how well they mixed with people of Santiago and how helpful they were.

"It was an overwhelming trip," Safran said. "It's hard to talk about it."

Safran became acquainted with Santiago's Jewish community in 1994 when she was in Cuba on a medical mission. The community was beginning to re-form following Fidel Castro's 1991 order lifting the ban on religious practices.

"Older [Jewish] people continued to get together in Havana, but in the countryside, [Jewish] communities fell apart completely," said Safran. She added that on her initial visit to Santiago, few Jews knew any Hebrew, few were aware of how to celebrate Jewish holidays and the community had neither prayerbooks nor a synagogue. "When I first met the head of the community in 1995, he was just learning how to read Hebrew."

She returned home and suggested that her synagogue, Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, adopt Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva de Santiago de Cuba as its sister congregation.

"She came back very psyched about the possibility of helping these people," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Netivot Shalom, who was on the most recent trip as well as the two prior ones. "This became her mission in life. She is the person charged with saving the neshama [soul] of this congregation."

Since then, the community has reclaimed its synagogue, which had been taken over by the Cuban government because the congregation couldn't pay its taxes. From Netivot Shalom, Santiago received Hebrew texts and prayerbooks, as well as clothing, shoes, and medical and school supplies.

On this trip, Safran's goals for the teens were threefold: to teach Hebrew, to show how Judaism is practiced in the United States and to see what life is like for a Cuban Jew.

The day after they arrived, the teens got down to business — teaching Hebrew to all members of the community, young and old.

Ethan Zatko, 15, of Oakland worked with two boys, Ruben, 7, and David, 10. By the end of the week, David was reading out of a prayerbook.

"They learned as much as I did in three years in three days," said Zatko, remembering how David kept coming up to him saying, "I want you to teach me this. I want to learn."

Friedkin found the same attitude in her students.

"They were very enthusiastic," said Friedkin, who enjoyed the challenge of using her Spanish to teach Hebrew. "That's why they're there because they want to learn. The little kids are like sponges. They absorbed everything I told them."

The Cuba trip was Friedkin's first teaching experience. "You have to do a lot of thinking on the spot," she said. "When [students] see someone so into what they're teaching, [they] get inspired. I never had anyone tell me before, `You taught me how to read.'"

Although Friedkin and Zatko are fluent in Spanish, not everyone was. But 17-year-old Joey Davis of Berkeley considered his lack of Spanish an advantage.

"It prevents cheating," said Davis, thinking of his own Hebrew teacher, who refuses to speak to him in English.

When the teens speak about the Jews of Santiago, words like "generous," "warm," "open" and "loving" keep popping up. But when it comes to their way of life, "poverty" is the operative word.

"We take so much for granted, we don't know what we take for granted," said Zatko. "They don't even have pens and pencils. They have to ration them out. I see how much we waste here. How much we want."

He recalled how David made a kite, using scraps of paper, string and sticks, and how ecstatic the child was went it stayed aloft.

"I don't think American kids would get excited about that," Zatko said. "They would just want to go back to the house to play Nintendo."

Zatko said that on the first night, members of the community made a large dinner for everyone. And for the next eight days, they ate the leftovers.

"We all felt guilty," said Zatko. "They offered food, but you could see that they were not taking a lot." So as not to deplete the Cubans' food supply, the Americans ate one meal a day at their hotel.

After one week, strong bonds were established between the Cubans and Americans. "We got to know them very well," said Friedkin. "Everything we did, the whole community came with us."

That included going to the beach, hiking, dancing and just sitting around talking. The Americans taught Hebrew and the Cubans taught salsa dancing.

Since the group returned at the end of the year, correspondence has gone back and forth. And with some members of Santiago's 80-person community planning to make aliyah, there are hopes for reunions in Israel.

Said Friedkin, "They gave to us as much as we gave to them and that's what is valuable."