After 48 years in the United States, Ceci Berenthal wasn't sure she would recognize her childhood home.
But on a one-week trip to Cuba with a Jewish group from North Carolina, she spotted a familiar metal railing on the third-floor balcony of a house she once knew well.
“Is this it?” she asked as she looked up to the Bauhaus-style building, which housed three families. The more she gazed up, the more certain she became. On that balcony some 50 years ago, Berenthal tickled her sister's foot and incurred her mother's wrath.
Berenthal, 62, now lives in Raleigh and was one of five Cuban Jews from the Triangle area who joined 33 others in the Caribbean nation as part of a religious mission. They wanted to deliver aid to the surviving Jewish community of Cuba, and they wanted to reconnect with the country many left behind after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
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Cuba was once home to a thriving Jewish community. Many came to the Caribbean island in the mid-20th century to escape persecution in Eastern Europe and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, or simply to find a better life. They formed synagogues and social clubs, bought property, ran businesses and, by all accounts, were happy.
Berenthal's home, in the still fashionable Miramar suburb of elegant villas and shady parks, was a beautiful place. A few blocks away was a social club; beyond that a silky smooth beach with clear blue-green waters. She enjoyed movies, parties and boys.
One particular boy, she knew, had his sights on her. His name was Saul Berenthal. Like her parents, his family came from Eastern Europe with nothing. They quickly rose to success in Cuba.
Years after they fled Castro's revolution, Ceci and Saul's love story, which transcended boundaries, languages and cultures, propelled them back to Cuba in search of their roots.
Life on the island
The island has changed tremendously since the Berenthals and others fled, yet some things are the same. The cars on the road are vintage 1950s. The island's natural beauty still draws tourists.
But only one-tenth of Cuba's estimated 15,000 pre-Revolution Jewish population remains. The largest number live in Havana, but there are Jewish communities in small towns throughout the island.
The island has no permanent rabbi, and in many places Jews worship in fading synagogues and use outdated textbooks.
But these days Jews in Cuba have more interaction with the United States. The Treasury Department issues licenses to religious institutions to travel to Cuba, and at least two dozen Jewish groups go each year.
The Triangle Jewish group raised $10,000 to be divided among the Cuban synagogues. Each member of the delegation also brought a duffel bag stuffed with clothes, toiletries and prescription medications – items that are either in short supply or unaffordable on the island.
But more important than the money or supplies, these N.C. Jews were able to participate in services, show their solidarity with fellow Jews, and, in turn, strengthen their own faith.
“The people who come on these trips get an emotional connection,” said Miriam Saul, an Atlanta-based Cuban native who organizes several trips a year to Havana. “They understand why Jews have survived.”
For Saul Berenthal, going to Cuba was the gift he always wanted to give his wife.
As a kid of 15, Saul knew Ceci was for him. Two years younger, and much admired by other boys for her sweet smile and easy-going manner, Ceci resisted. She thought he was arrogant.
Castro comes to power
In the meantime, revolution was brewing. On Dec. 31, 1958, the country's leader, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, escaped Cuba in the middle of the night. On Jan. 2, Fidel Castro descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains, near present-day Guantanamo Bay. The following week, he arrived triumphantly in Havana and took power.
Saul's and Ceci's families began making exploratory trips to Miami in summer 1960 and immigrated permanently late that year. On one of these trips to Miami, Saul led Ceci to the top floor of the Sagamore Hotel along Miami's beachfront and kissed her.
A relationship nurtured on Spanish, Judaism, black beans and fried plantains took hold in the United States. In 1966, the Berenthals married in Brooklyn, N.Y., where their families had recently settled. In 1978, they moved to Raleigh. He worked at IBM and later started his own business. She reared two children.
As the years passed, the Berenthals held fast to their memories of Cuba and yearned to return. In 2007, Saul took his son and daughter to Havana. Ceci, who was caring for her ailing father, stayed behind. When Saul returned, he decided to organize his own trip, and in the process, perform two mitzvahs – or good deeds.
“I could give something to the Jewish community here in Cuba and in the Triangle,” he said.
But in the back of his mind, he also wanted to bring his wife to their birthplace, their homeland, the origin of their love.