Dancing and Celebrating with My Cuban Jewish Community: A Q&A with Havana’s Susi Santana Said

In this Q&A with Susana Santana Said, a 23-year-old sociology graduate from Havana, Cuba, “Susi” discusses Jewish community life in her hometown, her passion for rikudim (Israeli folk dance), and the special message of Chanukah.

By The JDC Community | December 3, 2021

Chanukah 2019, Susi and a group of teachers from the local Sunday school light the menorah together.

 JDC has sustained Jewish lives and built Jewish life across Latin America for more than seven decades. During World War II, JDC helped Jews flee Nazi persecution and emigrate to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and beyond. And when Argentina’s economy collapsed in 2001, JDC provided humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of vulnerable Jews who were plunged below the poverty line overnight. Today, this legacy continues as JDC helps families facing pandemic economic woes and is empowering local communities and catalyzing the next generation of Latin American Jewish leaders.

In this Q&A with Susana “Susi” Santana Said, a 23-year-old sociology graduate from Havana, Cuba, where JDC has been helping building Jewish life since it was invited in the 1990’s to help with this goal. Susi discusses Jewish community life in her hometown, her passion for rikudim (Israeli folk dance), and the special message of Chanukah. 

Emunah, Susi’s dance troupe, performs on Yom Haatzmaut

Q: How would you describe the Jewish community of Havana?

The Jewish community in Cuba totals about 1,200 people: 1,000 in Havana and 200 in the rest of the country. In the capital, we have three synagogues: Orthodox, Reform and Conservative.  

An important characteristic is the composition of our community’s families. Many are mixed families with only one Jewish parent, and though our numbers are small, we are a very active community. We have a Sunday school, youth organizations, clubs for adults and the elderly, dance groups for children, a social welfare initiative, and much more. However, due to the pandemic, we have had to make some adjustments in our operations and logistics this past year.  

Before the Cuban Jewish revival of the 1990s, we went through a time where all our communal facilities were deteriorated and in need of repair. At that time, JDC came to play an important role in helping us to rebuild and today, it still helps support our passionate Jewish community. 

Q: How did you become involved with your Jewish community? 

I am the only child of a mixed marriage. My mother is from a Syrian Jewish family. I remember that my parents never hid my Jewishness from me, and in fact, when I was little, I sometimes went to Shabbat in the synagogue.  

However, my parents worked a lot and after school I had dance classes, so I didn’t have much free time to participate in all the programs of our Cuban Jewish community.  

It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I received a very special letter, the first and only one that I have received in my life. It was an invitation to participate in a summer course that was being prepared by the Board of the Hebrew Community of Cuba.  

After participating in that program, I became more involved in community projects and I had my bat mitzvah at age 12. A few years later, I began helping to conduct religious services and became part of the Maccabi Cuba youth organization.  

Today, I teach a group of teenagers at our Albert Einstein Sunday school, serve as president of Maccabi Cuba, and direct Emumah and co-direct Jai, two of our rikudim dance groups. All these places are like my second home. 

Susi volunteering to help local families from her community during the pandemic

Q: What does Chanukah mean to you? What is the most important message the holiday can teach us?

For me, Chanukah means hope. It means believing that everything will work out for the best. It reminds me a lot of family. I have been lighting the chanukiah at home for years, and I also celebrate in the synagogue, where we have many artistic performances.  

Chanukah always makes me think about the importance of always doing things in accordance with our values; otherwise, we run the risk of not doing the right thing. We must be good people so that what is right is something good for us and for others. That is the moral that I take from the victory of the Maccabees. 

Q: On the last night of “A Great Miracle Happened Here,” we see you dancing (as a part of the rikudim dance troupe). What do you enjoy most about dancing?

What I enjoy the most about dancing is the music and how we can stage sadness, joy, even a different character. It’s like acting. You can tell any story in about three minutes. The most fascinating thing about rikudim is that the choreography is spread all over the world. No matter where you are, you can join in dancing a given routine and know that it will surely be the same everywhere. 

Be sure to tune in Sunday, December 5th at 7 p.m. EST to watch Susi dance as we celebrate Latin America’s Jewish communities during “A Great Miracle Happened Here”, JDC’s first-of-its-kind global Chanukah event series. 

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