Step by Step: Women Lead Havana’s Jewish Renaissance

February 22, 2012


When Marlen Fernandez Barroto was born 40 years ago to a peasant family in Havana, Cuba it was anything but predictable that she would become a central figure in the island’s Jewish community of 1,500 members. Growing up during Fidel Castro’s era, religion was nowhere to be found in Marlen’s home, though she says, “My mother always told me that I was curious about religion from a young age.”

It was after her marriage 21 years ago to David, the son of Polish immigrants, that Judaism “slowly began to course through my veins,” Marlen passionately proclaims. An invitation to attend Rosh Hashanah services was their entree into organized religion—but it was through the JDC-supported Sunday school that Marlen took on an active role in rebuilding Jewish community life in the island’s capital.

“This school is the base, along with the family, of our children’s Jewish development,” she says. Each week when Marlen brought David’s children (from his first marriage) to the school, where they would learn about Jewish holidays and traditions, she helped out by watching the students’ younger siblings. From there, Marlen began teaching first grade. She has had ongoing training in Jewish education and liturgy from JDC professionals—couples who have spent two-year stints in Cuba since 1994 as the island’s only on-the-ground Jewish community professionals. Today Marlen takes much pride in watching her former students grow into young adults who she has since prepared for their b’nei mitzvah.

As Marlen was helping to shape the youngest Jewish minds, the youth in the early 1990s were connecting with the Jewish tradition through Israeli folk dance—and she was right there with them. “With dance we also learned Judaism; it was a mixture of joy, instruction, and a place to spend some time,” she says. Having somewhere to go to connect with like-minded people and to dance—an art so central to Cuban culture—was a welcome diversion in Cuba during the last decade of the 20th century, when the collapse of the Soviet Union also took with it the economic lifeline Cuba had long enjoyed from the Soviet regime.

“We were a small group that grew, both in number and in name—Emuna (faith),” shares Marlen. She danced with this young troupe until age 33, when she was inspired to spearhead an extension for adults, Darkeinu (our path/way)—“for those of us who got too old to keep dancing with our children!” she adds, with good humor. Today, Marlen is the Director of the entire rikudim (Israeli folk dance) program, which includes four groups in Havana and three in the provinces. Jews from throughout the island come together for a national Israeli dance festival every year. “Our rikudim groups are the pride and joy of the community.”

With Marlen’s increased exposure to diverse Jewish activities in Havana, she seamlessly takes on yet another leadership role: she is the President of the Association of Jewish Women in Cuba.

“It is so important to gather these women and maintain a connection and resource for them because they are the ones who bring Judaism into the family and maintain it,” notes Marlen of the 480-plus member women’s association. The active involvement of the group, which meets quarterly, is also indicative of the increasingly central role women are playing in reviving Cuba’s small Jewish community. “They are the ones who guide their children onto a Jewish path; they are the teachers and they help conduct the religious services; they bake challah every Friday; and they are camp counselors and heads of our organizations,” she says, noting that the community’s President, Adela Dworin, is also a woman.

Whether on the bima leading Kabbalat Shabbat services, conducting a rikudimrehearsal, teaching at the Sunday school, or looking on with pride as her youngest son leads the community in Kiddush or Havdalah ceremonies, it is clear that Marlen is one of the leading ladies—and critical pillars—of this resurgent, island community.

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