The Jewish Standard, Cover Story
19 June 2009
Howard Brown of Cresskill wanted to go somewhere he hadn’t been before. He decided on Cuba. But the United States has had an embargo on the small Communist country for decades, preventing trade and travel — except for humanitarian reasons. Brown called Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation Northern New Jersey, to discuss sending a mission to the island nation to learn about and help the small Jewish community there. “I’ve never been to Cuba and I decided to go,” said Brown, who with his wife Nancy was among the trip’s co-chairs. “I felt like a lot of people who went on the trip would like to see how the Jewish community is surviving and what we can do to help out.”
Fourteen people signed up to go — although one couple had to turn back in Miami because of illness — and UJA-NNJ’s Charish accompanied them. From May 20 through 25, the group toured the country’s small Jewish community.
“It was absolutely eye-opening,” Charish said. “Here’s a community that experienced almost 30 years where Judaism was repressed and now the spark has been reignited.” Before Fidel Castro rose to power, some 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba. Many had thought of Cuba as a stop-off along the way to America but ended up staying. Within 20 years of the 1959 revolution, however, the Jewish population dropped to 800. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s religious groups once again began to grow. “It was a beautiful thing,” said Jodi Epstein of Alpine. “I didn’t realize they were keeping [Judaism] alive there or that they were allowed to.”
Today, Cuba’s Jewish community is made up of approximately 1,500 people, about 1,000 of whom live in or around Havana. (See related story.) There are no rabbis and no communal kosher supervision. The capital city has three synagogues: Orthodox, Conservative, and Sephardic. Adath Israel, the Orthodox synagogue, maintains a kosher butcher, as well as the country’s only mikvah. The Patronato, the Conservative shul, is home to an extensive Jewish library, a pharmacy, a community center, and a Hebrew school started in 1992 that now has 50 children. The Sephardic Hebrew Center was founded in 1954 and hosts a community Sunday school for adults as well as a Hebrew teachers’ school. “We couldn’t believe the progress the Jewish community is making,” Brown said. He recalled singing and dancing with some 50 children at the Patronato’s Hebrew school on Sunday.
“They were just adorable,” Epstein said. “It made me see how it took very little to make the children happy. Just having us there made them very happy.” At the Patronato, the group learned from Adela Dworin, the synagogue’s president, that a van that brings people to the center had been funded by Bill and Maggie Kaplen, local philanthropists known for their contributions to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, among other institutions. “I felt terrific when I heard that,” Epstein said. “Maggie and Bill are very generous people.”
According to Robert Miller, UJA-NNJ’s director of missions, the van will pick some people up at 4 in the morning on Saturdays and bring them to the center where they will have breakfast, services, lunch, and then other activities. “That shows a tremendous amount of dedication,” Miller said. “You have to throw out from your mind what the conventions are because of the different system that exists there.” Epstein had been encouraged to go on the trip by her friends, the Browns, but also by her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Englewood Cliffs, who had been to Cuba almost 10 years ago with a federation mission. “She was telling me how they lived in a time warp there,” Epstein said.
The average Cuban earns $20 to $30 a month and food is rationed. During Shabbat dinner at the Patronato, the group learned that the chicken dinner was the only source of protein all week for many of the attendees. “It’s a black hole to a lot of people,” said Miller, who organized but did not participate in the trip. “They are going back 50 years in some ways.” Before the trip, the Cuban community gave the federation a wishlist of necessities, including sun block, vitamin A, deodorant, mosquito repellant, and sneakers. Miller recalled that one participant asked him what size sneakers to buy. “I said, ‘They’re not expecting you to buy anything, they’re expecting it to be used,’” Miller recalled.
According to government regulations, religious groups must commit to undertake only those activities “that are consistent with U.S. foreign policy.” These include “attendance at religious services as well as activities that contribute to the development of a Cuban counterpart’s religious or institutional development.” “It was unlike anything we’ve ever done or contemplated because of [other] government restrictions,” Miller said. Before the federation could make any travel arrangements — booking flights, hotels, or even settling on dates — Miller had to wait for the U.S. government to send a special license that would permit travel to the embargoed country on humanitarian grounds. The mission could depart only after approval, which meant the dates were left fluid. Yet in order to apply, Miller had to submit an exact list of all the participants, who waited to learn when they might go. The license came through in the end of March, and Miller quickly got the group together.
He had hoped for a bigger number, inasmuch as the license covered a group of up to 25, but he noted that the advertising essentially had to be done through word of mouth because of government restrictions. Miller worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has an office in Havana and sponsors the country’s only chazzan, to organize the trip. Steven Schwager, CEO of the JDC, said that typically, there is one trip a month from the U.S. Jewish community to Cuba through JDC or the federation system. JDC has played a strictly non-political role in the country since the early 1990s.
“These trips strengthen the connection between the Cuban Jewish community and other Jews around the world,” he said. “In addition, they can provide material support for those Jews living at or below the poverty line.” “We could tell that our visit meant a lot to the people that we visited,” Charish said. “The message was loud and clear that this community is not going to be isolated from the Jewish communities in the United States, even though there are no relationships between Cuba and the U.S.” UJA-NNJ’s travel license expires next May. Under its terms, the organization is permitted one trip every three months. Miller is already thinking about a second trip some time in December, which has excited participants eager to return. “I think the future holds a lot for [Cuba’s Jews], especially if there are more missions like ours who keep going to Cuba,” Epstein said. “I think we give them hope and eventually when Fidel Castro dies and Raul Castro dies, it’ll be a free country.”
For more information on this and upcoming trips to Cuba, call Miller at (201) 820-3954