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This afternoon, those of us traveling to Cuba will be visiting the Jewish community of Havana. Our visit isn’t just to see how Jews live in Cuba, it’s to learn about this Jewish community 250 miles to our south and establish ways in which we as a congregation can support this community.

As we’ve  planned our visit to Cuba, we’ve been working very closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The JDC was founded during World War I as a means to help the Jewish community that was struggling to survive in Ottoman Palestine. The JDC was the first Jewish organization in the United States to provide large-scale relief to this community and other Jewish communities devastated by WWI. With the destruction of the European Jewish community during WWII, the JDC worked to help survivors of the Holocaust and rebuild what was left of the Jewish community in Europe. The organization also provided social welfare services in the new State of Israel. Over time, the JDC extended its reach into other parts of the world, including North Africa, the Muslim world and the former Soviet Union, providing relief to the Jewish communities in these regions. Today, the JDC is active in over 70 countries, helping vulnerable Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

The JDC plays a pivotal role in Cuba. The Cuban people struggle to get enough to eat. Food shortages are common and the government’s food rationing system limits the amount of food an individual and a family can have. Beginning in 1995, the JDC established the Shabbat Dinner Program and the Challot Program, both of which continue provide a nutritious Friday night dinner to any Cuban, whether they’re Jewish or not. In addition, the JDC runs The Milk Program out of the Sunday School at the Jewish Education Center in Havana. This program, a direct response to the fact that the Cuban government rations powdered milk and gives it only to children younger than 7, provides 1kg of powdered milk monthly to young Jewish community members aged 4 to 25.

One of the most incredible aspects of the JDC’s work in Cuba has been the creation of a pharmacy in one of Havana’s synagogues. There’s a lack of extremely important medications throughout Cuban society. In response to this, the JDC has worked tirelessly with local Cuban physicians and pharmacists to develop a pharmacy that offers antibiotics and other medications at no cost to any Cuban in need. The JDC supplies the refrigeration, air conditioning, shelving, and computers for the facility. In addition, since 1996, the JDC, with the help of visitors to Cuba who are familiar with the work of the JDC, has brought medication to the pharmacy.

The JDC provides the Cuban Jewish community with visiting rabbis, Hebrew School and important Jewish cultural experiences. When there’s a bar/bat mitzvah in Cuba, the JDC makes certain that it’s a festive event. One of our younger travelers on our Ramat Shalom trip is determined to have Ramat Shalom help support the next bar/bat mitzvah in Cuba!

The efforts of the JDC have changed the lives of Cuban Jews (and non-Jews too) for the better. But, there’s still so much more work to be done. Seeing it first hand, visiting some of the important Jewish sites in Cuba and coming into contact with members of the Jewish Cuban community are so important. Our experience will help guide us as we return to South Florida and develop meaningful ways for those of us at Ramat Shalom to support our Cuban brothers and sisters.

In Havana tonight, we’ll be openly and proudly welcoming Shabbat together around 7:30pm – the same time that services begin at Ramat Shalom. We send wishes for a Shabbat Shalom from Cuba. Upon our return, we look forward to working together as a synagogue community to support our friends in Cuba.



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