Jews of Cuba: Success by Necessity
We all seem to know somebody who has visited Cuba or is planning a trip. And while it’s true that international tourism to Cuba has exploded in the last decade, the tightening of restrictions for U.S. travelers, numerous hurricanes and sonic threats have lessened the appeal for American tourists to the island. The decline in visitors has had a marked effect on the Jewish community and its institutions whose operating budgets depend on tzedakah from visitors and organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our overseas partner. This year, Atlanta was able to send two delegations to Havana, letting the Jewish community know that they are not alone. Federation’s most recent group of eighteen travelers has just returned from Havana, absorbing powerful lessons about history, culture, politics and the sheer determination of the only Jewish community in the world still living under a communist government. Said one Atlanta participant, “Cuba’s Jews live by the motto, ‘Success by necessity.’ They have no other choice.”
Imagine a community of 1,200-1,500 Jews who, like everyone else on the island, lack wealth, political power or the ability to buy or sell property, trying to maintain five fragile synagogues without a single resident rabbi. “Jews are not moving to Cuba. Very few Jewish children are being born. This community’s survival depends on ingenuity and global Jewish generosity,” said Beth Warner, Federation’s Chief Philanthropy Officer, who was visiting for the first time. “The items on the community’s wish list were both practical and heartbreaking — they asked us for over the counter medications, antibiotics, a watch as a gift for an upcoming bat mitzvah girl, burial shrouds, socks, underwear, tallitot (prayer shawls), and wedding decorations. We could see that the shelves of the JDC supported pharmacy at Havana’s Patronato Jewish community center, were nearly bare.”
The Atlanta group enjoyed the warm embrace of Cuban Jews everywhere they went. They visited the Jewish cemetery and Holocaust memorial, and Havana’s only Sephardic synagogue. They attended Friday night services at the city’s Conservative synagogue inspirationally led by next generation community members. They met with Hebrew school teachers who do their best to strengthen Jewish identity. “On Shabbat we walked through Old Havana and in the evening we were treated to rikkud (Israeli dance) performances by members of the community which culminated in a beautiful havdallah service. What lingers is the worry about how a younger generation will carry on these traditions,” another participant said. The group learned that a handful of young Cuban Jews have attended Jewish summer camp in Canada and a few have been to Maccabi games in countries that issue visas to Cubans. “With extremely limited internet or the ability to travel, this community is very isolated.”
As a group, the Atlantans chose to make a substantial gift to support transportation needs for the Jewish community. They have two vans that are essential to get people to and from events and services, but like so many vehicles in Cuba, they are held together with odd parts and scrap. These funds will help keep them running, pay for gasoline, and drivers. “The vans may not be as cool looking as the colorful 1940’s and ‘50s vintage cars that are a Cuban hallmark, but they will do important holy work,” Beth Warner said.
For information about upcoming Federation missions and other Jewish journeys, please contact Staci Eichelbaum.