Intrepid teenager finds mission in a Cuban bnai mitzvah group

NEW YORK — Most b'nai mitzvah 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 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 to finance the b'nai mitzvah celebrations of six young teens in Havana.

Then Jennifer and her father, Will Recant, who is in charge of Latin American relations for the Joint, traveled to Cuba with roughly 30 other members of a group led by the UJA-Federation of New York.

They attended the last bar mitzvah of the group, for Victor Prinstein.

Jennifer 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 practice.

Two-and-a-half years ago Will Recant traveled 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 Joint workers overseas to figure out how she could help the community.

On Jan. 27, seven months after her bat mitzvah, Jennifer went to Cuba.

She visited a Sunday school that the Joint recently had renovated. The school has a small, free pharmacy for local Jews.

The Sunday school 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.

Jennifer met most of the kids who had been helped by her money, and attended a special ceremony in her honor.

"They were saying things like, 'Jennifer is our godmother.' It felt good to hear that, and to know that I had really helped," she says.

She also could relate to the kids as friends, Jennifer says.

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 says. "We also told jokes and laughed a lot."

Jennifer was amazed at how "deprived and appreciative" the Cubans were. When one woman in the group gave Milky Way bars to the teens celebrating their b'nai mitzvah, "they looked like they were in heaven," Jennifer says.

Jennifer also brought the staples of Jewish ritual life: Her school donated kiddush cups, mezuzot, prayer shawls and a Havdallah candle.

The Joint, Jennifer's family and her community in Wyckoff, N.J., also donated items ranging from Bibles and prayer books with Hebrew and Spanish translations to simple necessities, such as soap and toothpaste.

Before Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution, Cuba's Jewish population peaked at 15,000. Some 75 percent of them lived in Havana.

The capital had five synagogues, a kosher restaurant, a Jewish high school and five Jewish elementary schools.

An overwhelming majority of Cuba's Jews fled after the revolution, and today roughly 1,100 Jews live in Havana, with another 400 dispersed in Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritu and Camaguey provinces.

Since 1992, the Joint has sent rabbis and community organizers to help Cuba's Jews with education, perform ceremonies and establish a computer center linking the Jewish communities of Havana, Santiago and Camaguey.

Directing most of their programs via Argentina, the Joint also provides basic commodities that are scarce in Cuba — such as food and special shipments of ritual items — and provides health services and medications to the Havana Sunday school pharmacy.

Three synagogues in Havana survived the revolution — one Orthodox, one Conservative and one traditional Sephardi.

The b'nai mitzvah students' lessons were held once a week for six months, taught by Mara and Nestor Szewach, Joint representatives and program coordinators in Cuba. Also helping were three teachers from the Sunday school and the main Torah reader at local services.

After every bar or bat mitzvah there was a community celebration with food, dancing and transportation for about 150 people.

For Jennifer, "it was so meaningful to see how my religion is practiced in other places." It also was remarkable to see "how little they have. We have so much here, but even a penny goes so far there."

On April 14, the six b'nai mitzvah and their parents attended a closing ceremony for Jennifer's program, in which every child was presented with a Tanach, a Kiddush cup and a challah-covering that Jennifer had bought.

There still is money left in the fund, Will Recant says, adding that "I would love to replenish it" for more kids to be able to undergo the process that Jennifer sponsored.

Since her visit, it hasn't been so easy for Jennifer to keep in touch with her Cuban friends.

"Since there's no mail service to Cuba and e-mail only works sometimes, I'm waiting to send a letter with the next mission," she says.

Still, her own mission has had lasting benefits for her. The trip "changed my life, because it made me more aware of what people in different living conditions are like," she says. "It also made me aware of how much I have compared to them, such as clothing, food, toys, housing and Jewish schooling."