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Rabbi James Prosnit

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jimRabbi James Prosnit has been Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut, since 1990.  Prior to this, Rabbi Prosnit served as Associate Rabbi at both Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York City, and Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Ontario. 

He received his B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University, and M.A. degrees from New York University (Education) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Hebrew Literature).  He was ordained from HUC-JIR in New York in 1981 and received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 2006.

Since 1990 he has also been an adjunct lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at Fairfield University. 

Rabbi Prosnit is involved in the rabbinic residency mentoring program for rabbinic students at HUC-JIR and has served as a mentor for the Ignatian Residential College at Fairfield University.
Among numerous community activities, Rabbi Prosnit is Past-President of Connecticut Against Gun Violence and serves as vice-chair of Operation Hope, a homeless shelter and social service agency in the Town of Fairfield.  He serves on the Inter-religious Affairs Commission and the Commission for Lifelong Learning for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Prosnit lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, with his wife and three sons. 

Iyar/Sivan 5774
From The
Rabbi's Desk
May 2014
Dancing the Hora in Havana


Last month, 37 of us had the unique opportunity to celebrate Shabbat with members of the Cuban Jewish community in Havana. It was a festive and joyous celebration. We danced the hora during “Lecha Dodi,” chanted along with some engaging melodies throughout the service, and then joined with the entire congregation for a Shabbat chicken dinner afterward. Included in the congregation of 150 or so worshipers were more Jews in their 20s and 30s than I daresay have ever been here at B’nai Israel on a Friday night. It’s a fascinating community—struggling for sure, but with some inspiring leaders, the support of the Joint Distribution Committee, a rabbi who comes up periodically from Argentina, and visitors like us, it’s hanging on. Through conversions and other outreach it is even growing, ever so slightly.

Adela Dworin, the head of the Cuban Jewish community with whom we spent some time earlier in the week, told us, “In 1980 if anyone had told me that Jewish life in 2014 would have survived, let alone been so vibrant, I would have said, ‘impossible.’” Today there are only some 1,300 Cuban Jews. There are three functioning congregations in Havana and seven tiny congregations in other cities. (We visited one such congregation in Cienfuegos, about three hours from Havana, that meets regularly in a member’s home).

In Havana there is an Orthodox/Chabad-oriented group, a Sephardic community where some of us worshiped on Saturday morning, and the largest—the congregation we attended that Friday night—best known as the Patronato, because that’s where the “patrons” of the community, the richest Jews back in the 1920s, worshipped.

While there were some conversos who travelled with Columbus in 1492 when he landed on the island, the vast majority of the Jews of Cuba trace their beginnings to the turn of the last century. There were Turcos, Sephardic Jews from Turkey and the Ottoman empire; Polacos, Polish Jews but also a generic name for anyone who came from Eastern Europe or America with Ashkenazic origins; and then a sizable number of folks called “refugees” who came mainly from Germany in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism and suffered from the restrictive immigration policies in the United States.

At its peak there were some 15,000 “Jewbans.” In the main they did well, prospered, owned businesses, lived in beautiful homes, and faced little anti-Semitism. But after the revolution and the nationalization of businesses and confiscation of private property, about 90% left in the 1960s, most to Miami. Those who stayed tended to be committed to the revolutionary principles that they thought Castro represented or had family reasons that made it impossible to leave.

We were told by many folks that while the Communist regime was anti-religion in general, all faith groups suffered in the early years of the revolution, and the Jews experienced no specific anti-Semitism. In the 1990s the government ended the restrictions on religious groups, and at that time some sought to reclaim their Jewish roots. Both Fidel and Raul Castro have been to the Patronato for Hanukah celebrations. Adela told us that she told Fidel Castro that it’s a holiday celebrating a Jewish revolution—so he was only too happy to come and light a candle.

While things have changed and opened up a bit in recent years, life is still difficult for the Cuban people. The American embargo has taken a toll. Infrastructure is crumbling, despite the magnificent architecture—including Art Deco and neoclassical work—but many buildings and homes are falling apart. A visit to the local grocery store revealed very few products; for example, meat is rationed—¾ of a pound of pork 3 or 4 times a month per person per month. But the Jewish community can go to the one kosher butcher and purchase the same amount of beef or chicken. And while we had cable TV and Internet access in our hotel, most Cubans had neither.

We were told that the average salary is about $25.00 a month, but many live through a secondary underground economy and hustle mightily to earn a living. Teachers moonlight as cab drivers, doctors take on other jobs, and even our wonderful tour guide was first an engineer before he started to lead groups like ours.

The society was surprisingly open. There were no restrictions on where we could go or couldn’t go and what we could bring with us. There was very little police or military presence. Cuba was one of the few places I’ve travelled to that didn’t have guards at synagogues.

You got the sense that individuals could be critical of the government and would only get in trouble if they organized around their issues. And while the embargo is a big thing, none of us experienced any anti-Americanism. Cuba doesn’t have diplomatic relationships with Israel (the friend of my enemy is my enemy), but over and over again we were told that this policy was in no way anti-Semitic. The paradox was that Israel is one of the few places to which Cubans these days can legally emigrate, and that may also be the inspiration for some of the conversions that are taking place.
All of us who travelled enjoyed ourselves—the complexities of the place and the beauty despite the deterioration of some much infrastructure. We felt we did good by bringing tzedakah—money as well as other items. Our group included six physicians who brought a lot of much-needed medicine to help stock the pharmacy that is run out of the Patronato.

And as usual when you travel, the connectivity of Jews came through in powerful ways. There is the special blessing one feels when visiting Jewish communities, when sensing the power of faith, of a chicken dinner, of seeing the differing colors of the Jewish people—white, black, brown—and of experiencing the common ground of chanting ancient Hebrew prayers together.

To learn more about the trip and the Jews of Cuba, join us on Erev Shavuot, Tuesday evening, June 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Rabbi James Prosnit



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