As I shared last week, several of us traveled to Havana to visit the Jewish community there. We traveled to Cuba via cruise ship. We left Fort Lauderdale last Thursday afternoon and arrived in Havana Friday morning. We spent Shabbat at sea, visited Nassau on Sunday and returned to Fort Lauderdale early Monday morning.
We only spent one day in Havana. Prior to our visit, this was a bit of a concern to me. I questioned whether or not we would really be able to experience the Cuban Jewish experience in such a short period of time. Yes, it would’ve been nice to spend bit more time with the Jewish community in Havana, which is made up of approximately 1,000 people. It would’ve been interesting to visit some of the smaller Jewish communities outside of Havana – there are about 200 or so Jews spread out throughout the country. This being said, the time we spent exploring the Jewish community in Havana, visiting two synagogues, one cemetery and the Jewish-themed Hotel Raquel was extremely powerful. It was both fascinating and disturbing.
We were guided through the community by tour guides, who, while taking us to the Jewish sites, shared what life is like for them in Cuba. The government’s strict food rationing program, building after building in disrepair, and an overwhelming feeling of sadness that permeated the portions of Havana that were not gussied up for the tourists, seemed to have little impact on our guides. “We get by,” said one of our guides. “Healthcare is free,” she reminded us as we drove past the hospitals in Havana. Our guides talked openly about the “black market,” seeming to promote an entrepreneurial spirit among the Cuban people who are determined to rise above their monthly salaries, which range between $15 – $45 a month. Even while visiting with Jewish leaders, life in Cuba was portrayed as being “okay.” “I wish you brought me a bagel, lox and Philadelphia Cream Cheese from your ship,” said one Jewish leader who later pointed out that she lives near the US Embassy and her hearing is just fine (referring to alleged sonic attack on our embassy in Havana).
Certainly, we all understood that the Cubans we met last week weren’t able to speak freely about life in the Communist country. Despite this, it was so challenging to sit face to face with people who couldn’t openly share. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the folks we visited with have become so used to their lives that they don’t see it as being so bad!? And then there were the reflective moments, like when I got back on the ship after spending the day in Havana and was greeted by members of the crew handing out cold water and a never-ending buffet filled with every food imaginable, when I asked myself “are those of us lucky enough to know only freedom, are we incapable of truly understanding life in Cuba?” During these reflective moments, I never once doubted that life in Cuba was unfairly harsh for her citizens. I did, however, try to challenge my own read of the country given my own personal experience. Trust me, it didn’t change the fact that I left Havana with a very heavy heart and a determination to help our Jewish brothers and sisters who have no choice but to call Havana home.
There are so many things to share. Here are just a few:
Synagogues in Cuba don’t have security. Anti-Semitism, according to Cuban Jewish leaders, is “not an issue.” In fact, the support that the Cuban Jewish community receives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other organizations, support that makes it possible for the Jewish community to offer Friday night dinner and much needed medications to any Cuban, appears to have encouraged Cubans to respect the small Jewish community in their country. The government also promotes the Jewish people. The Office of the City Historian of Havana runs the Hotel Raquel, which our tour guides explained is “dedicated to the Jewish people.” It’s a beautiful building with a mezuzah on its main door, the Jardin Del Eden (Garden of Eden) restaurant which combines classic and new Jewish recipes but is not kosher, and lots of biblical/Jewish references throughout the building. The money spent in this hotel, which is an official part of the government run Jewish Heritage Tour, goes to refurbish tourist spots in Havana. Clearly, this hotel “dedicated to the Jewish people” is a “creative” way to get much needed money from Jewish tourists. Our group did not spend money at this hotel.
At Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba, the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana, there is a large Holocaust exhibition. When you walk into the exhibit this is the first thing you see:
The famous words written by Pastor Martin Niemöller in both Spanish and English. “First they came for the Communists…..Then they came for the Jews.” Haunting words to see as one enters a Holocaust exhibit in Cuba. In this exhibition, Communism and Judaism are both victims.
I’m committed to having Ramat Shalom work closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to do what we can to help the Jewish community in Cuba. One of our own upcoming B’nai Mitzvah, Corey Wasserman, is determined to ensure that a Cuban teen can have a meaningful bar/bat mitzvah celebration in their synagogue. I’ve learned that there will be three Cuban teens becoming b’nai mitzvah this year. The service and celebration will cost each family $1,150 – money they just don’t have. Corey will be sponsoring one teen. I invite you to help the other two teens celebrate their big day. You can make a donation directly to the JDC by contacting Victoria Blint Midrony who is the JDC’s Director of Strategic Partnerships at VictoriaB@jdc.org or 646-871-3274. Please let her know that you’re contributing as part of Ramat Shalom Synagogue. Thank you in advance for your support. It will make a difference!
I look forward to sharing more with you about our trip and about ways that we can help the Jews of Cuba.