“Cuba? Why are you going to Cuba on a humanitarian mission, rabbi?” Congregants and friends asked this question numerous times after Congregation Kol Ami and Temple Beth Hillel announced the plan to visit Cuba in April 2016. The answer was simple, the Jewish community there needs us and we need to hear their stories.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger and I learned about the possibility of doing a Jewish religious mission from other rabbis who led similar trips and we knew that, as the relationship between the United States and Cuba’s relationship is entering a new era, timing was just right. Working with Pierre from World Passage Ltd., we worked out an itinerary that enabled us to meet with the Jewish communities in Havana and Cienfuegos and learn about the country and people of Cuba. Our congregants were excited about this travel opportunity and before we knew it we were on our chartered flight from Miami to Havana.
We entered Cuba carrying clothes for the tropical climate, a minimum of 10 pounds of physical donations for the four organizations we would visit, cash tzedakah, and enough cash for our trip (United States citizens cannot use credit cards or ATMs so we needed to convert our cash into CUCs). Our enthusiastic group of 22 hit the ground running and began our tour. We went right to the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana, one of three Jewish communities we would visit (we also stopped at a maternity clinic in Trinidad and brought gifts).
Jewish life in Cuba was strong prior to the 1959 revolution. There were approximately 15,000 Jews throughout the island of Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent. Havana was home to 6 or 7 day schools and a private Jewish high school. After the 1959 Revolution, private businesses were confiscated by the government, private schools were closed and if one was to participate in any religious community s/he would not be able to work within the government (this included medical professionals, teachers, etc.). For decades there were not enough Jews at any of the synagogues to make minyanim for the High Holy Days. However, after the fall of the socialist countries, the Castro regime allowed Cubans to practice religion without fear of penalty or retribution. Cuba changed from an atheist country to a secular country.
The Jewish community of Cuba today is approximately 1,500, about 1,100 Jews in Havana and 400 in small communities throughout the country. Like all of the people of Cuba the Jewish community has made life work under difficult circumstances. Our donations consisted of items that the congregations in Havana will use in their pharmacies. The congregations run the facilities and any Cuban who has a prescription can come and receive whatever it is they need, provided the pharmacy has it in stock. We also brought basic necessities like toothpaste, toothbrushes, and men’s and women’s underwear.
While there is much to be proud of within the Cuban Jewish community, they are in trouble. Most of the Jews leave Cuba whenever the opportunity presents itself (today most of the young people plan to make aliyah). 95% of Cubans are intermarried, and at the Patronato Synagogue 20% of the congregants are over 60 years old. Cuba’s Jewish community has a unique history and story of survival and there is much to learn from them.
Of course we did not only meet with the Jewish community of Cuba. We heard an overview of Cuban architecture, and sadly every day three houses collapse in Cuba because of the lack of infrastructure. We saw signs of Jewish life, Jewish stars embedded in stained glass windows, hanging from chandeliers and placed within mosaics. We visited Museo Bellas Artes and saw the immense collection of Cuban art. We heard an acapella concert by a phenomenal group in Cienfuegos and saw a demonstration of authentic Santeria dance and music. We stopped at Jardin Botanica de Cienfuegos, an amazing space filled with hundreds of species of trees. And we stopped at La Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home, to view the property and the newly painted swimming pool (thanks to President and Mrs. Obama’s recent visit.)
Narratives in Cuba are very important. We learned the story of the October Crisis (what we in America call the Bay of Pigs) and for many in our group it was eye-opening to hear a different perspective. We also carried the narratives of the Cuban Jews living in the United States with us. One of my congregants has fond memories of her family’s home in Havana and the farm where they grew sugar cane. In 1959 she and her family fled Cuba, their home and farms were confiscated by the government and she vowed never to return. The Cuban people are eager to tell their story. If you are able to do so, I encourage you to go and listen. Listen to the music, dance to the rhythms, and take in the wonders of the vast array of visual arts.
Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA. She blogs at rabbisteinman.com/blog