Strolling on Paseo Prado, one of the Cuban capital’s main boulevard, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, with eyes open wide and a broad smile, stops a group of schoolchildren and enchants them to sing.
The 20 children, all strangers to the rabbi, are gleeful.
Their young teacher steps forward and selects one to recite a poem. As soon as she finishes, Szteinhendler lifts the young girl, gives her a loving hug and a kiss on the cheek, and thanks all the children gathered.
Once again, the charismatic Argentine-born rabbi has touched some individuals in a meaningful way.
“Being a rabbi has to be a kind of vocation – a passion – a mission,” says Szteinhendler, 49.
His mission, he says, is “to give a meaning to being in this world.”
Touching individual lives, especially Jewish souls, is his special mission.
For the Jews of Cuba, Szteinhendler’s periodic visits during the past four years have been central to the renaissance of their community. He has helped fill a void created more than three decades ago when all the rabbis fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
“Rabbi Szteinhendler is our spiritual father,” says Yosef Levy, president of the Sephardic Jewish Center here. “We only see him two or three times a year, but he is always in our minds.”
Szteinhendler began his communal career at the age of 15 in Buenos Aires, where he later was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. For the past 18 years, he led a congregation in Guadalajara, Mexico. About 20 percent of that congregation came from Cuba when thousands of Jews fled Fidel Castro’s revolution. He says his congregants led him to believe that there were no Jews left in Cuba, except for a few elderly ones.
But, in January 1992, Szteinhendler made his first visit here at the behest of the American Jewish Distribution Committee, which had entered Cuba a year before to provide community-development expertise in reinvigorating a long- dormant Jewish community.
“I remember they told me, `Don’t forget us,’ because other rabbis had come and gone,” Szteinhendler recalls of the Jews he met then. When he returned two months later with religious supplies, “they were shocked that I returned.”
Szteinhendler’s inspirational appeal to this community now totaling some 2,000 people quickly became apparent when he accompanied a JDC board mission to Cuba in early December. The trip coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Patronato, the main synagogue here.
Szteinhendler was continually praised by Cuban Jews, both old and young, for his work with their community. At times he could be seen fighting back the tears of joy that come from knowing deep inside that in Cuba he had clearly fulfilled his mission in life.
“When you perform a mitzveh for someone, it is not so important that the person thank you,” Szteinhendler says. “You must thank the person who allowed you to perform the mitzvah – and then you really feel alive.”
Szteinhendler, who recently moved to Santiago, Chile, to head a congregation, is not alone in bringing to Cuba the vitality of the Argentine Jewish community, the largest in Latin America. The JDC program in Cuba was initiated in 1991 by Alberto Senderey, an Argentine who now heads the JDC office in Paris.
Jorge Dinier, who just completed two years here as director of the JDC program in Cuba, also is from Buenos Aires.
Along the way, they have brought in Argentine teachers and rabbis to help with the rejuvenation of the Cuban Jewish community. Dinier’s successor is yet another Argentine, Roberto Sanderowitsch.
Szteinhendler’s exuberance about his experience with Cuban Jewry stems from the knowledge that here he finds “people who are in real need and in worse condition” than where he comes from and works.
“Here they are fighting for higher values,” he says.