07 June 2009

Miami: Havana Jewish HS 1959 reunion

A very special high school reunion was held Saturday in Miami Beach, when the 1959 class of the Centro de Israelita de Cuba held its 50th reunion. This was Havana's first and only Jewish high school.

The Miami Herald carried the story here.

''Our school is our pride . . . our Yiddish school should live eternally,'' sang the first graduating class of Havana's first and only Jewish high school. The year: 1959.

Fifty years later, they were singing the same song again -- only this time in Miami Beach. Many students from the Centro Israelita de Cuba graduating class have known each other since kindergarten and have experienced life milestones together -- about five attend the same temple in Miami Beach and two are sisters-in-law. Their closeness matches the tight-knit bond forged by many Cuban-Jewish immigrants.

''I have friends that I've known for more than 60 years. We are like family in a way,'' said Rosa Zipper, 67. ``We still hug and kiss.''

The venue was the Cuban Hebrew Congregation. Ten class members and some 100 others attended. Following a Shabbat morning service, the class sang its Yiddish alma mater, written by Zipper's father.

In 1960, many of the graduates left for the U.S., and Castro shut down the school in 1961. One grad said "it wasn't the ending of our education, but the beginning of a lifetime of friendships."

Centro Israelita had been a grammar school for nearly three decades before school leaders built a high school on the second floor around 1956. Previously, classes were held in nearby buildings.

The curriculum included Israel, Jewish values, Jewish history, Yiddish, as well as psychology and science.
Mario Chizyk, class valedictorian, even delivered his graduation speech in Yiddish. ''I'm a little apprehensive about seeing people I haven't seen for a long time,'' Chizyk, 67, said.``We've stayed close, but some I haven't seen for a while.'' But he said he wasn't worried about recognizing his former classmates because each name tag included a senior yearbook photo.
The only yearbook ever published was in 1959, and the class photo shows boys in white tuxedos and girls in white gowns.

From 1953-1960, the Havana community built the high school and three synagogues - they expected to be there a long time. Unfortunately, Fidel Castro had other plans, and many left with just a suitcase - most came to Miami.

Before the Cuban revolution, some 15,000 Jews lived there; today there are fewer than 1,000. The last school reunion was a formal occasion held in 1988 in Miami.

Said one attendee, "''We have to celebrate right now. We're all walking. Who knows what will happen in five years?''

Read the complete story at the link above.

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