Israel Srebrenik and Saul Berenthal met in kindergarten in 1949 at a school in the tight-knit Jewish community of Havana, a place Americans at the time associated with casinos, nightclubs and Ernest Hemingway.
In May, Srebrenik and Berenthal will lead a cultural exchange trip from Raleigh to a very different Cuba, the one impoverished by more than 50 years of communist rule and a U.S. trade embargo that makes it illegal for Americans to buy so much as a Cuban cigar.
Srebrenik and Berenthal, now both 69, hope in a small way to foster greater understanding between the people of their adopted country and their homeland, which is slowly emerging from its Soviet-era social and economic constraints.
“Who’s a better ambassador for the United States than typical Americans from Raleigh, North Carolina?” asks Berenthal, who has lived in Raleigh since 1979.
Berenthal has been back twice. For Srebrenik, who lives in Smithfield, it will be the first trip to his home country since his father bought an illegal visa for him and put him on a plane for Jamaica in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro came to power.
The story of these old friends returning to the country they left on the run as teenage boys is remarkable enough.
But even more extraordinary is the reunion that made the trip possible. For while Srebrenik and Berenthal met in kindergarten, their paths diverged after third grade, six years before the Cuban revolution.
They didn’t see each other again until 2007 at a North Raleigh synagogue, after both had become college graduates, husbands, fathers, businessmen, grandfathers and Americans.
And it took a photograph from that school in Havana to make the connection.
A parting of ways
Jews emigrated from Europe to Cuba for the same reasons they came to the United States – to escape persecution or economic hardship and make a new life. There were about 15,000 Jews living in Cuba in the 1950s, most professionals and merchants in Havana.
Srebrenik and Berenthal met at the Autonomous Hebrew School of the Israeli Center of Cuba. They remember each other as being troublemakers, in a boys-will-be-boys way. They each spent their share of time standing in the hallway outside the classroom, a standard punishment at the school.
But at the beginning of the fourth grade, Berenthal’s parents sent him to a military school to give him some discipline. Srebrenik puts it like this: “We parted our ways in fourth grade, because my friend Saul here was a little too rambunctious.” The two friends lost touch.
Berenthal and Srebrenik’s parents had emigrated to Cuba from Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Both of their mothers were Polish. Srebrenik’s father was Russian; Berenthal’s was Romanian.
Their parents did well in Cuba. Srebrenik’s owned a factory that made ladies underwear, which he sold in a family store and to other retailers across the country.
Berenthal’s father became the sole importer of General Motors cars, though on paper he was one of the country’s biggest importers of meat, Berenthal says. It could take months for paperwork on imported cars to clear, but with the right payment to a government bureaucrat, those shipments could be reclassified as perishable meat and brought in right away.
Both families lost their businesses after the revolution. Srebrenik recalls militia men arriving at the family’s shop with guns to take it over. Berenthal’s father turned over the importing business – including the cars, the parts and the giant warehouse in central Havana – in exchange for permission to leave the country.
“We were merchants,” Berenthal says. “Communism doesn’t need merchants.”
Both sets of parents were eventually able to leave Cuba, but not before each put their sons on airplanes alone, unsure of whether they’d see them again.
Different paths in U.S.
Srebrenik and Berenthal were both 16 when their parents got them out of the country – Srebrenik on the fake visa to Jamaica and Berenthal as a student via a program in the United States from which he never intended to return. He brought with him 20 boxes of Cuban cigars and sold them in Miami within a week.
“That’s what got me started,” he says.
Srebrenik got a green card from the U.S. embassy in Jamaica and a plane ticket from an aunt in the United States and landed in New York. He worked as a messenger for a freight company by day and attended high school in Brooklyn at night. He eventually studied business at Rutgers University, went to work for a textile company, then founded his own and moved it to Smithfield in 2009.
Berenthal moved to New York, too, studied math and physics at Long Island University and went to work for IBM. His career with the company brought him to Raleigh, where he started his own software business, which he sold in 1993.
Berenthal was a member at Raleigh’s Beth Meyer Synagogue when he took his son and daughter to Havana as part of a religious mission in 2007. They had just returned when Srebrenik, in Raleigh to see his son, was visiting Beth Meyer and Rabbi Eric Solomon introduced him to Berenthal as a fellow Cuban. They did not recognize each other.
During another visit, Srebrenik was attending services at Beth Meyer during the High Holy Days and was wearing a yarmulke with American and Cuban flags that caught Berenthal’s attention.
“He taps me on the shoulder and says ‘Are you Cuban?’ ” Srebrenik says. “And the rabbi had to say ‘Shhh’ to him,” ending the conversation.
Again, they didn’t recognize each other.
There are a couple of reasons for that. In Cuba, Srebrenik had gone by his given name, Israel, but shed that in favor of Izzy after he moved to the U.S. His last name was pronounced slightly differently in the U.S., too. And then there was the fact that the men did not look much like themselves as boys.
“Whatever weight he lost, I gained,” Srebrenik says.
When Srebrenik moved to Smithfield and joined Beth Meyer, Berenthal and his wife and another couple took Srebrenik and his wife out to dinner. The two men established that they were the same age and attended the same elementary school.
Later that evening, Srebrenik came to Berenthal’s house and brought along two copies of class photos from the school in Havana, from the second and third grades. Srebrenik pointed to himself in second grade, sitting in the second row. Berenthal then pointed to himself sitting just in front of him.
Not only did they finally recognize each other, but the other young faces in the photographs brought up names and memories of people they had not thought of in years. It was the beginning of a rekindled friendship that has grown stronger between two men who share similar life stories.
“It’s been a beautiful relationship,” said Solomon, the rabbi. “They’ve been there for each other. They act like brothers. They speak each other’s language. It’s very special.”
‘Help my people’
Solomon is going on the trip to Cuba with Berenthal and Srebrenik. Cuba loosened its restrictions on religion after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Jewish community has grown, albeit slowly. There are only about 1,500 Jews left in the country, Berenthal says. There are no rabbis, and the synagogues are largely used as community centers.
“Jewbans,” as Cubans in America call themselves, have enormous pride in their religion and their culture, Solomon says, but theirs remains one of the few Jewish communities in the world that is not totally free.
“We have a long Jewish tradition that when our people are in need, the Talmud says we’re all responsible for one another,” he said. “I want to see what I can do, a small piece, to help my people in need.”
The Raleigh group will visit a couple of synagogues, but also churches, health centers, museums and Hemingway’s house. They’ll hear lectures on the Cuban economy, the arts, the health care system and marine biology.
Berenthal hopes to eventually arrange to bring some Cubans back to Raleigh, perhaps a young person to a Jewish summer camp, or another to learn the rites of bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony for boys.
“The intent is to bring some Cubans to our community, so it’s a real people-to-people exchange, not just one way,” he says.
For Berenthal and Srebrenik, the trip will also be personal. They’ll see streets, neighborhoods and houses they remember from their childhood, as well as the school where many of their earliest memories were formed.
Srebrenik tells a story about staying after school one day to recite Jewish history in Yiddish for the principal (for practice, not as punishment) and becoming frustrated by the principal’s interruptions to correct him. He stormed out of the room, left the building and climbed a mango tree just outside. He grabbed a mango and threw it through the open window, hoping to hit the desk or something else, “to get even with him.”
Instead, the mango hit the principal in the head.
When Srebrenik finishes the story, Berenthal says, “That tree is still there.” The old friends will see it together in May.