By Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker
I recently led a congregational mission to Cuba where, among many things, we visited an Orthodox synagogue in Havana. One of the lay leaders, Ya’akov, spoke to our group about the synagogue’s history, its members, their services, and their practices. In the chapel, tarnished Torah crowns adorned the bimah, and dusty books and Judaica lay tired, but proud, on the bookshelves.
At the end of the talk, I asked Ya’akov if he could show me the mikveh. He led me through a dark, narrow hallway where he unlocked a creaky door. A few of the others on the trip followed us into a small room where we saw a simple, white-tiled mikveh. We were startled to see that the mikveh was dry – not a single drop of water! Ya’akov explained that because standing water can attract illness-bearing insects, therefore a person who wants to use the mikveh has to call at least three days in advance so he can fill it.
In Cuba, the mikveh is used primarily for monthly immersion and conversions. I asked how many conversions occur each year, and Ya’akov said very few since it takes approximately ten years to convert. This may have been an exaggeration to make a point. “Why so long?” we asked in amazement. Ya’akov told us that conversion is made difficult so people who pursue it are choosing it for the right reasons.
In the last 24 years, with only 6% of the pre-1959 Revolution Jewish community remaining in Cuba, the 1,500 still there have received a lot of attention, tzedakah, and much-needed supplies from visiting Canadian and American Jews. In 1992 it became acceptable to practice Judaism openly for the first time since the Revolution. In addition to support from abroad, Jews have other advantages over their fellow Cubans, like being able to acquire beef. Because observant Jews do not eat the primary meat staple, pork, they are permitted to get a small, rationed amount of kosher beef each month. Ya’akov is the schochet, the one who slaughters the cows in the particular way that makes the meat kosher. Others in Cuba almost never get the coveted beef, and it is illegal for them to hunt and kill cows. Some Cubans joke that the jail term for killing a cow is greater than it would be for killing a person!
While there are some who want to become Jewish to have the same advantages as Cuban Jews, there are those with other reasons. Some want to convert to marry Jewish partners (though intermarriage is common); others have rediscovered their Jewish roots; still others have one Jewish parent and want to claim their heritage. What struck me in meeting members of three different communities – one Orthodox, one relatively large Conservative, and one tiny Conservative – was the faith and dedication of those who converted and of those who affiliated after nearly 40 years with no real Jewish communal practice.
It is easy for American Jews and others who freely practice Judaism to take for granted the great privilege religious liberty offers. This trip reminded me of that. And of how grateful I am that Mayyim Hayyim always has water in the mikveh and enough people to use it.
Rachel Stock Spilker is a cantor at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and her family are in Boston for six months for a sabbatical. Cantor Spilker has long admired the work of Mayyim Hayyim and is honored to be serving as a scholar-in-residence through the end of June.