When we first set foot in Cuba, we felt the very special nature of it. The people were vibrant, the buildings magnificent and the music exhilarating. What ultimately sealed it for us was when one member of the Cuban Jewish community thanked us for “not forgetting” about them. We made a commitment to bring our communities together and began CHAI Missions, a Jewish non-profit organization committed to worldwide humanitarian effort, with an initial focus on Cuban Jews.
“Thank you for not forgetting about us,” was the ubiquitous response when we told the Jewish community in Cuba that we were American. These people are accustomed to having Canadians and Europeans visit and were thrilled with our Jewish mission including Californians. With tears in their eyes they shared their life stories. Whether doctors or lawyers, engineers or shopkeepers, they earned the same paltry $18 per month. Though the residents use the “Old Cuban Peso” effectively making goods more affordable, supplies are appallingly scarce. Items we take for granted, such as bandages, antibiotics, diapers and eyeglasses, are luxuries for Cubans.
Walking through the decorative gates of El Patronato, the main synagogue in Havana, we immediately felt at home, despite the absence of security guards commonplace in American synagogues. A safe environment is inherent as there is virtually no anti-Semitism in Cuba, rendering guards unnecessary at any Jewish venue.
Smiling faces greeted us as we entered the adjoining Ashkenazi Community Center adorned with compelling posters ranging from Cuban Jewish statistics to sketches of Maimonides and Albert Einstein to photographs of Fidel Castro visiting the synagogue. It was here that Adela, a prominent Jewish community leader, spoke with us about the perils of Cuban Jews.
There used to be a thriving Jewish population up until the Revolution, which virtually put a halt on all religious practice. Now, 50 years later, Judaism is in a revival mode. Up until 1959, Jewish numbers hovered around 15,000. Following mass exodus, a mere 1,500 remain.
Our next stop was the Sephardic temple, Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, much more understated than the Patronato, but again, we couldn’t have had a warmer reception. Mayra, a retired physician, now the president of the shul, enlightened us further.
With such a small Jewish population, both synagogues work together to try to provide the community with whatever it needs. The Patronato offers Hebrew/religious education for the children. As no “private” schools are permitted in Cuba, this is a fairly new endeavor.
The Sephardic Temple provides a senior daycare center. This is an important function as the Jewish senior population is much higher than is the general population because of large emigration numbers. Sixty-seven senior citizens gather for meals and activities several times each week. They also create artistic vases and like items with sale proceeds helping fund the program.
Both synagogues house pharmacies open to Jews and non-Jews alike. When Mayra finished her brief presentation, we asked her to show us the pharmacy, curious how a religious institution could run such a venture. She brought us to a small room where under a ceiling with a few flaking tiles, unfinished wooden shelves held an assortment of medications and personal hygiene items. Unfortunately, there was more bare space than bottles and boxes occupied. The medications and supplies we brought to donate would hopefully fill the empty space.
Smiling, she continued, “We have everything we need in a ‘Cuban way,’” and invited us to explore the rest of the premises.
Walking into the next room we met Simon Goldstein, a gentle, articulate man in his 80s, who opened and now operates one of two Holocaust memorials in Cuba. He spoke candidly with us for some time. We walked through his labyrinth of photos, impressed to find such a comprehensive display.
Thanks to the Birthright program, Cuban teens have been going to Israel, connecting with their Jewish roots while expanding their Judaic knowledge. Although no rabbi lives in Cuba, there are Shabbat services. We attended heartwarming services led by a young, dark-haired man of about 30, who could have easily been mistaken for Israeli. Two young women from the congregation joined him on the bimah chanting prayers with lilting melodies that gave us chills despite the Caribbean swelter.
Glancing over the assembly, we noticed that many children and teens were present. What struck us was their rapt participation in the service. The B’nai Mitzvah candidates sat in the front row while the rest of the youth were sprinkled amongst their families and the Jewish Mission participants.
Members of the Sephardic Synagogue join the Ashkenazi for Friday night services, which are followed by a “kosher-style” community dinner. At this dinner we were able to speak with some locals sharing stories, as they were interested in our lives. We immediately developed bonds with our Cuban mishpacha, enjoying our new friendship.
Traveling east from Havana we paid our respects to the local Jewish cemetery, which is in a dilapidated state, its tombstones cracked and leaning. (Note to self: let’s bring a Jewish Service Mission to renovate). Ironically, it is also home to the first Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere. Under the piercing tropical sun, our guide delivered a remarkably chilling fact about this memorial. Forty bars of soap made from human body remains were discovered in Germany shortly after the war and were brought here and given a proper burial. Rising above stones visitors have placed, the imposing memorial, inscribed in both Hebrew and Spanish, marks the place of interment.
Traveling further east amongst horse and buggies hugging the road, past fields spotted with emaciated cows, we arrived at the quaint town of Cienfuegos. The few Jews living here meet in the home of community president, Rebecca, and her family. She amicably welcomed us, explaining in tentative English, that this group does not have a shul, yet beautiful Judaic floor tiles and artifacts generate a holy ambiance.
Seemingly without air conditioning on this particularly sticky day, we sat on cracked resin chairs in the living room, yet all we felt was comfort and joy spending time listening to their anecdotes, trials and tribulations. We also had the privilege of meeting Rebecca’s son, Daniel, a recent graduate of a top Cuban art school.
When asked about the poignant artwork surrounding us, Daniel invited us to visit the neighborhood gallery, containing his pieces as well as those of other local artists. It is no secret that Havana houses many top art galleries filled with resplendent artistry. We were pleased and surprised to find such magnificent works, many of which were Judaic themed.
On our way back to Havana, we toured a state-run high-risk pregnancy clinic. We heard the resident doctor explaining the facility and met some of the patients. Having included this clinic on our recipient list, we delivered prenatal vitamins, diapers and infant clothing to expectant mothers.
Life is poor in Cuba, but Jews lead rich lives. Family and community are extremely important. Cuba is abundant in color and flavor, but it’s the people that make the small island country vibrant. But they need us. We must let them know we, the American Jewish community, have not forgotten them.
On Jewish Missions to Cuba, we provide provocative itineraries with articulate guides. Our smaller groups are able to spend quality time with the Jewish community, and, of course, we bring items to donate including medications, school supplies, clothing and the like. But equally important, with our camaraderie, we will create a lifelong bridge uniting our communities.
Join our Jewish Mission to Cuba, November 3 to 11, 2013, and be part of a most extraordinary week, filled with tears from laughter, warmth and newly discovered friends. We will help our Cuban brothers and sisters: one Chai Mission at a time.
Chai Missions, Inc., is a non-profit Jewish organization committed to worldwide humanitarian effort. For details, visit www.chaimissions.org.
Having worked and volunteered in Jewish non-profits for years, traveled and studied in Israel many times, nothing moved us co-hosts Randi Simenhoff and Rhonda Slater more than the Jewish community of Cuba. After their first Jewish Mission to Cuba, they knew this was too important to shelve, so they began CHAI Missions, Inc, a Jewish non-profit organization committed to worldwide humanitarian effort, with an initial focus on Cuban Jews. They invite people to join them in bringing supplies and friendship to the Cuban Jewish community, while enjoying the vibrant culture this small island country has to offer.