“You’re going where for Rosh Hashanah?” This was the usual response from my family and friends after I mentioned that I would be spending the Jewish New Year in Havana, Cuba with my Jewish brothers and sisters in one of the poorest most isolated Jewish communities in the world.
I sincerely believe that it is so important to occasionally take oneself out of ones comfort zone and first world problems and get to places where there really is poverty. It helps one to snap out of self-pity mode and most importantly to raise funds and awareness for the people who need it the most. Making the world a better place (Tikkun Olam) and raising funds for those less fortunate than ourselves really help one to focus on what is important our world. Our Rabbis teach, “It is not for you to finish the work, but neither are you free from trying.” I know that there are a lot of REAL problems in this world and it is a privilege and honour for me to play my own small part in trying to make the world a little bit better for some of my more unfortunate fellow humans. Despite the fact that we are all created evenly in God’s image there is a tremendously uneven distribution of physical wealth and educational opportunities.
Imagine sailing back in time to a world where 1950’s American muscle cars are still the kings of the (decaying) roads. A world where once grand pastel-coloured buildings silently weep as they slowly decay and their edifices inexorably crumble. A world where there is no security at the synagogue on the High Holidays.
This was not an ordinary visit to my coreligionists. This was a visit of deep significance both on a personal level and for the community. The Talmud states, “All of Israel are responsible for one another,” yet rarely is one given the opportunity to fulfill these words in such a meaningful and practical manner. A visit to the isolated Jewish community in in Cuba, especially after the recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma, is a golden opportunity perform hesed (acts of kindness) and to show support and honour to these Jews who cling to their Judaism under the most trying and difficult circumstances. In addition to a financial donation and greetings from Israel, I brought a case packed with much needed medical supplies for the community-run pharmacy.
The situation and future of Cuba’s tiny Jewish community is tenuous at best. I had a fascinating conversation with Adela Dworin, the octogenarian Cuban-born president of the Beth Shalom/Patronato synagogue and she educated me about the startling reality of daily life for the Cuban Jews. She told me that approximately 90% of the then fifteen thousand Jews fled after the 1959 revolution. Currently there are an estimated 1,300 on the Communist-ruled Caribbean Island. Before the revolution there was a thriving community with a strong infrastructure including schools and clergy. Today there are no Rabbis or Jewish day schools, one Kosher butcher and an alarmingly high rate of intermarriage.
A visit to the decaying United Hebrew Congregation Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery at Guanabacoa was deeply disturbing. I saw how once the once pristine final resting place of Cuban Jews was in an advanced state of disrepair. Many tombstones are broken and weeds grow freely. The entire grounds have an atmosphere of forlorn despair. The non-Jewish caretaker I spoke with informed me that there are rarely visitors and no repairs have been carried out for decades. The cemetery was symbolic of the state of the community.
Despite the fact that the Jewish community, unusually for a diaspora community, suffers from no anti Semitism and feels safe, notwithstanding Cuba’s decades long aggressively anti-Israel stance in the UN, most of the Jews, together with their fellow Cubans, live in penury. During a community Shabbat meal at the synagogue after the services, which were refreshingly led by the youth of the community, I spoke with Alejandro a young Jewban (Jewish Cuban) about how he sees his future. He told me that he had already been twice to Israel, once with Birthright on a joint Cuban-Canadian trip run by the Canada Israel Experience (CIE) and once as part of the Cuban delegation of the recent Maccabiah games, and upon completion of his university studies is planning on making Aliyah (immigrating to Israel). Two of his reasons were his genuine love of Israel, he felt very much at home in the Jewish homeland during his visits, and the need to escape the economic hardships facing the Cuban people, both Jewish and non Jewish. I also met with the parents of Daniel who this year at the age of eighteen left Cuba for Israel to volunteer in the IDF. He is currently attending an Ulpan (Hebrew language classes) before enlisting. He hopes to enlist in a combat unit as a Lone Soldier. When I asked his father what his motivating factor was, he responded that he wants to make Israel his home and therefore wants to serve to the best of his ability. His parents and younger sister are making plans to join him.
I have travelled extensively and always make an effort to visit the local Jewish community. The Cuban experience was similar yet different. Similar in that I immediately felt that I was with “family,” yet different because I felt the unique circumstances of my Jewish brothers and sisters in Cuba made it hard to predict their future. At least we now live in an age where it is so much easier to support and help those in need and most importantly where we have a Jewish state and are in control of our own destiny as Jews.