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Cuban Rabbi Rejuvenates Yonkers Congregation

In today's United States, the permutations of people of various backgrounds coming together for a common purpose are virtually endless. Today on New American Voices we meet , a Cuban-American serving a very diverse congregation of Orthodox Jews in the city of Yonkers, just north of New York City.

Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas grew up in a community of Cuban Jews - 'Jewbans', he says they were called - in Miami, Florida. Two and a half years ago, he moved north to lead a very different sort of congregation.

"This is one of a small, growing number of synagogues that is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-lingual," he explains. "The congregation has many Jews from Poland and Hungary, and a few from Romania and some of the Soviet republics. We also have English Jews, and then we have all of Latin America represented, many Cubans like myself, many people from the Dominican Republic, and from Central America. We have one family from El Salvador, many Argentinean Jews, Venezuelans and Columbians. And some African communities as well. We have Ethiopian Jews, and I have one from Uganda, and one from Nigeria.

When Rabbi Viñas took over the Lincoln Park Jewish Center synagogue, the average age of the congregation, he says, was about eighty. It was known as a senior citizen community. But this is changing rapidly. "There is a growing group, we have about 40 families that are young people, with children," he says. "They run around the sanctuary, they make noise, there's a lot of crying babies, which is the most beautiful music to my ears. Today we have more and more births, and circumcisions, and bar mitzvahs, and baby namings…"

Young people are joining his synagogue for a variety of reasons, Rabbi Viñas says. "I think it's simply they know there's a young rabbi - they consider me to be young, you know, rabbis are not… we hit our stride when we're seventy, but I'm only 37, so I'm a baby in the rabbi world. They have a young rabbi, and they feel they can connect with him. And the other piece of this, the main marketing for our synagogue is simply welcoming, making people feel comfortable here. Letting people know that this is the house of God, for us, and everyone's welcome in the house of God."

The congregation also has quite a few converts -people who are reconnecting with their historic roots, or those who have been seeking a spiritual home, and find in the Orthodox Jewish community a life-style they like. "Thank God we have many of those," Rabbi Viñas says of the Jews by choice. "I'm actually one of the Orthodox synagogues that's known for welcoming people who are in the process of exploring their connection to Judaism. I want you to know, though, about conversion. That Judaism is very much against proselytizing. But we are for people who want to explore. So if somebody wanted to come and study and learn more about Judaism, and at the end of that process felt that they didn't want to convert, I would feel very successful, because it would mean that they had learned and experienced things and come to a decision on their own. I'm also very happy to report to you that there are quite a number of people who DO convert."

It's not easy to be an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Viñas admits. There are strict rules about observing the Sabbath and holy days, and dietary restrictions. It's a way of life that seems at odds with today's fast-paced, highly technological, materialistic world. And yet, says the rabbi, there is an upsurge in people's desire for a more traditional spiritual connection.

"Sometimes I describe myself as the 'shabbas salesman', the Sabbath salesman," the Rabbi says. "What I sell is one 24-hour day when you turn the cell phone off. And if the phone rings, you don't have to answer it. And the computer doesn't have to be on, and the television doesn't have to be on. And the radio doesn't have to be on. A day when there's a law that you have to observe, and that law that you have to observe is that you have to spend 24 hours with your family. Eating nice meals, playing board games with your children, spending time with your community. And recomposing yourself as a human being."

Rigoberto Emanuel grew up in Miami's so-called Little Havana district, immersed in Cuban - and Cuban Jewish - culture. His parents had fled Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power in 1960, and like many refugees, idealized the country they left behind. They passed their love of their homeland on to their son… but also an appreciation of the safe haven, and freedom, they found in America.

"I should tell you, that my parents still cry when they sing the national anthem. So even they, who said such nice things about Cuba…" the Rabbi's voice trails off. "What I love about America is my freedom, to be able to express myself, my freedom to make mistakes, and also my freedom to be able to dream up a scheme and then be able to do [realize] it," he says enthusiastically. "To me, the fact that I live in a society that's so open, and so diverse, and has so many different resources available to me - that's kind of what gives me joy."

But Rabbi Viñas is not blind to some of the down sides of life in America. He says he is concerned about social problems, especially poverty. "Also I worry about racism," he adds, "and I worry about moral decline in the United States. I'm a clergyman, after all. I think it's important for us as a people to renew our commitment to spirituality and community and living the right life."

Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas says one of his greatest satisfactions is being able to build in his synagogue in Yonkers, a community out of very disparate people - a community that is, in his words, like a family that laughs and cries - and worships -- together.