Our Visit to Havana: Strengthening Jewish Life in Cuba
In early 2007, 26 members of Temple Oheb Shalom journeyed to Cuba on a seven-day humanitarian mission to the Jews of Cuba. It was our third such visit to Cuba in as many years, and each one was authorized by special license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Over time, we had built relationships with our “Juban” friends, watched their children grow, and witnessed the Jewish community take major steps toward self-sufficiency.
Following the revolution, it was illegal to practice religion until 1992, when Castro decided that Communism and religion were compatible. With the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, B’nai B’rith, and missions such as ours, the Jewish community was able to begin to be revitalized. Havana’s three synagogues were renovated, a religious school was started, and teachers arrived from Argentina to help the community’s renaissance.
Prior to the Revolution, there were 15,000 Jews in Cuba. Today there are 1,500, with more than 1,200 located in Havana. The country has no rabbis, cantors, or mohalim, nor is there any anti-Semitism, but Jews are just as impoverished as other Cubans. There is a constant shortage of food, medicine, clothing, and cash, and daily life is a struggle. The synagogues function as social service centers, providing medicine, hot meals, and tzedakah to members of the Jewish community. The week before we arrived, a beit din (religious court) comprising rabbis from El Salvador, Argentina, and Brazil converted 74 people to Judaism and then officiated at 21 Jewish weddings. On that one day, the 95% intermarriage rate was lowered significantly!
The B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project funnels tzedakah to the local B’nai B’rith chapter, which allocates $10 monthly to 63 family units. By far, the most moving aspect of the trip was our visit with the beneficiaries of this support. As Joshua Blackman, a trip participant wrote, “We met with a recently re-married couple in their 80s – she’d just converted to Judaism, and when asked why now, said she’d not had time before because she was raising her seven children. We met an 83-year-old man who lived with his 47-year-old son and spoke Ladino, Hebrew, and Spanish. He had a new refrigerator courtesy of B’nai B’rith, and appreciated the gifts we provided.” Joshua – as were we all – was touched, too, by our ability to see and hear firsthand about the Cubans’ lives, to give them useful items that make a difference, and to convey to them our concern for their well-being.
By the end of our week in Cuba, each of us felt more strongly connected us to God, the Jewish people, and one another. We were reminded of how much we have, how lucky we are, and how important it is to be grateful for our freedoms. Cuba’s Jews need our help, and it was a joy for us to fulfill a mitzvah by providing it to them.
Rabbi Steven M. Fink, D. Min, D.D. is the spiritual leader of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, MD.