Miami Beach Cuban Synagogue to Host First Ever Haitian Shabbat

When you think of Haiti, you might think of a troubled political history. You might think of its colorful, intricate artwork. You might think of the devastating earthquake that leveled large parts of the country just more than four years ago.

But you probably don't think of Jews. And that, says Leah Stern, is a problem.

Stern, the Southeast regional director of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) Haiti, which runs an orphanage and hospital for displaced Haitian children, wanted to bring her organization's cause to the attention of one of Miami's biggest and most generous philanthropic demographics: members of the Jewish faith. So she and Temple Beth Shmuel Rabbi Aaron Katz devised a unique concept: a Haitian Shabbat.

"I was cheating on my rabbi with Rabbi Katz," Stern laughs, explaining that Katz is a religious leader who often eschews conservative practices in order to target Miami Beach's younger demographic. "He's like the rabbi from The Birdcage.... I fell in love with him because he was different than any other rabbi I'd ever met. He's very open. He likes to go out and socialize. We'd talk about men, the Bible, and he's a professional matchmaker, so he was trying to find me a husband at the same time."

Stern shared her frustration at targeting new philanthopic groups for NPH Haiti, which had traditionally been focused on fundraising among Catholics. And that's when the idea was born.

"He said, 'how about a Haitian Shabbat?' [I said], Rabbi, what the hell is a Haitian Shabbat?"

Here's what it is: a Haitian take on traditional Shabbat services, followed by an event featuring speakers, live entertainment, and food and drink designed to blend the best of both cultures. At 6:30 p.m. this Friday, Rabbi Katz will lead a Shabbat service spoken in Hebrew, Creole and Spanish. When the service ends sometime around 7:45 p.m., a Kosher, Caribbean-style dinner will be served. Attendees will have the opportunity to listen to Haitian drummer Rara Koyu and guest speaker Billy Jean, a once displaced Haitian child who grew up in an NPH orphanage and now has a successful future as a lawyer.

It's the first Haitian Shabbat ever, to Stern's and Katz's knowledge, making it an only-in-Miami experience. "Imagine if you tried to do this in Minnesota," Stern said. "People would go, 'No.'" You really could only pull something like this off in a melting pot of cultures like Miami.

In fact, the event itself is shaping up to be a melting pot. Approximately 80 people have RSVP'd so far, Stern said, including Jews, non-Jewish Haitians, and plenty of people from other cultures who've never before set foot inside a synagogue. There's no need to study up on Jewish culture beforehand, Stern emphasizes, noting that the service has been designed to be outsider-friendly, with call-and-response songs and plenty of interaction with the energetic Rabbi Katz.

Stern's only advice: "Come open minded, and throw your ideas of what traditional Judiasm is like out the window. People think Judiasm is just gefilte fish and orthodox men wearing big black hats. Actually, it's a religion that's about being a good person and taking care of others, and people coming will get to meet a lot of different types of people, Jewish or not. Prepare to just have fun."

The Haitian Shabbat takes place this Friday, Jan. 31. Shabbat service begins at 6:30 p.m. and is free. The dinner event immediately following starts around 7:45 p.m., with a suggested donation of $35. Funds go to NPH Haiti, to run its orphanage, hospital, and other children's services in Haiti. You can RSVP at nphusa.org.

Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.

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