A Girl from Memphis Walks in Havana

Put on my bright orange converse and I boarded the plane.  God works in mysterious ways. I was originally scheduled to visit Cuba three weeks ago. Hurricane Irma had other plans, and delayed my visit to the Jewish New Year. This was my first trip to Cuba, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was going to Cuba to visit and bring supplies for the Jewish community. With the average monthly wage in Cuba being about $20, most Cubans both Jewish and non-Jewish, live in poverty. Driving around Cuba and seeing all of the crumbling architecture and old homes with many families inside, one gets a sense of just how wealthy life once was in Cuba. When Castro came to power in 1959, private businesses and properties were nationalized. If a family had a mansion with ten rooms, all of a sudden each bedroom and the living room would become separate apartments.

My AirBnB host Sara checking out my converse painted by artist Atomiko.
My AirBnB host Sara checking out my converse painted by artist Atomiko. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd

It was incredibly interesting to learn about Cuba’s history through the lens of the Jewish community. In 1924, more than 24,000 Jews lived in Cuba with thriving community institutions.  Many of the Jews came from Turkey after the Ottoman Empire dissolved others fled anti-Semitism in Russia, and Eastern Europe. As a third generation Holocaust survivor it was interesting to learn how many Jews came to Cuba to escape Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, this came to an abrupt end on May 5th, 1939 a few months before WWII began when Cuba abandoned their immigration policy invalidating all of the Jewish refugees’ legal visas and denied political asylum.

Views of Cuban Architecture in Havana.
Views of Cuban Architecture in Havana. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd

A few weeks later, on May 27th 1939, the St. Louis, a German luxury liner carrying many Jewish refugees with Cuban visas that were legal when issued, was denied from docking at Havana Harbor. The ship’s captain was German and Christian. He knew exactly what would happen to the Jews if they returned to Germany. He did everything he could to save them, including sailing the ship along the Florida coast. US President Franklin Roosevelt had the Coast Guard follow the ship’s path in order to keep the refugees from America’s shores. Fortunately some of the Jews were able to disembark in England, but those who disembarked in Belgium and France were not so lucky. Many were murdered in the Holocaust. Two decades after these traumatic events Castro came to power. In one year, over ninety percent of the Jewish population left. Today, there are less than 1,500 Jews living in Cuba.

Here I am pictured bringing much needed supplies for the Jewish Community. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd
Here I am pictured bringing much needed supplies for the Jewish Community. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd

Experiencing the Jewish New Year in Havana’s largest synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom was an experience I’ll never forget.  I walked in on my first night in Cuba and brought a very large bag of supplies- Tylenol, deodorant, T-shirts, toothpaste, soap etc. Small purchases we take for granted are necessities in Cuba. The synagogue acts as a distribution center and insures those who need the help receive it.

Beth Shalom synagogue located in Havana. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd
Beth Shalom synagogue located in Havana. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd

When I walked into the sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah services I was surprised to experience a service led entirely by teenagers. The community has no Rabbi, and allows the teens to run the services. In their fashionable clothes, the service was short since the teens knew few prayers. It warmed my heart that the adults allowed their young people to take such important roles. Try to picture a synagogue or church in America having one of their most important services run by teens.

The sanctuary of Beth Shalom synagogue located in Havana. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd
The sanctuary of Beth Shalom synagogue located in Havana. Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd

One of the teens told me, it makes him proud to have the responsibility. He explained the adults feel if the teens want to lead services, they should. All services are run by teens, whether it’s a holiday or regular service.  I went back for Friday services, and new teens were leading at the front. I was asked to make the “Hamotzie” blessing over bread for the entire congregation, and those few words inspired one my proudest moments of being Jewish. Even though I’ve recited the prayer numerous times, I was proud as a representative of worldwide Jewry. I wanted my visit to show that I cared and that our Cuban coreligionists are not forgotten.

As I hugged the longstanding president of the Cuban Jewish community Adela, I was brought to tears as I told her how much I enjoyed the hospitality.  She asked I come back, and share my experiences with the community. In a world where there are many things that can divide us, Cuba inspired me to see how love, kindness, charity, and most importantly Israel and Judaism can bring us together.  The synagogue had virtually no security. The Cuban people were very friendly, and loved Americans. There didn’t seem to be any racism in the society.

My nails were Cuban themed for the trip.
My nails were Cuban themed for the trip.Copyright Rayna Rose Exelbierd 2017

I came back a changed person. My apartment seemed like a mansion, and my Toyota Camry felt like a Lamborghini after a week of driving in old cars with no AC. I realized it isn’t how much you have, or what you own, but what you DO with those resources. I am blessed to have grown up with a strong Jewish identity, which ultimately led me to Cuba. For many of the Cuban teens, moving to Israel after high school is their best option. It is very difficult to get into college in the United States, and staying in Cuba is economically tough because it is very hard to support a family.  This trip reminded me how important my role at StandWithUs is in educating others about Israel, but also inspiring their youth as a happy young Jewish adult. Before I left America, I had my nails designed for Cuba. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, my nails and our laughs, translated in both languages.

About the Author
Rayna Rose Exelbierd, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating high school she spent a year in Israel. She then moved to South Florida to study International Business at Florida Atlantic University. During her undergraduate studies Rayna became a victim of the pernicious campaign against Israel that permeates many college campuses around the world. She overcame those challenges and that led Rayna to become proactive in educating other students about Israel. Upon graduating, her passion became her full time career as the Southeast High School Director for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization. In this role she has mentored hundreds of students and has reached thousands of others. Rayna's love for Israel is what defines her both professionally and personally.
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