Strolling on Paseo Prado, one of the Cuban capital's main boulevard, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, with eyes open wide and a broad smile, stops a group of schoolchildren and enchants them to sing.
"Being a rabbi has to be a kind of vocation - a passion - a mission," says Szteinhendler, 49.
says, is "to give a meaning to being in this world."
"Rabbi Szteinhendler is our spiritual father," says Yosef Levy, president of the Sephardic Jewish Center here.
communal career at the age of 15 in Buenos Aires, where he
later was ordained as a Conservative rabbi.
For the past 18 years, he
led a congregation in Guadalajara, Mexico.
But, in January 1992, Szteinhendler
first visit here at the behest of the American Jewish Distribution Committee
, which had entered Cuba a year before to provide community-development expertise in reinvigorating a long- dormant Jewish community.
"I remember they told me, `Don't forget us,' because other rabbis had come and gone," Szteinhendler recalls of the Jews he
returned two months later with religious supplies, "they were shocked that I returned."
Szteinhendler's inspirational appeal to this community now totaling some 2,000 people quickly became apparent when he
accompanied a JDC board mission to Cuba in early December.
The trip coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Patronato, the main synagogue here.
was continually praised by Cuban Jews, both old and young, for his
work with their community.
At times he
could be seen fighting back the tears of joy that come from knowing deep inside that in Cuba he
had clearly fulfilled his
mission in life.
"When you perform a mitzveh for someone, it is not so important that the person thank you," Szteinhendler
"You must thank the person who allowed you to perform the mitzvah - and then you really feel alive."
, who recently moved to Santiago, Chile, to head a congregation, is not alone in bringing to Cuba the vitality of the Argentine Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.