What I Learned in Cuba: #ItsComplicated
When congregants, friends, and family asked excitedly about my trip to Cuba, I was sure that colorful 1950s Fords, dark rum, pungent cigars, strong coffee, mouth-watering mojitos, and dancers’ swinging hips moving to the beat of Cuban guitars and drums filled their imaginations.
Before the trip, that was exactly the Cuba I thought I would be visiting.
But my answer to the question was this: “It’s complicated.”
When I registered for the American Conference of Cantor’s first ever humanitarian mission to the country, it was with an adventurous spirit and a desire to learn more about Cuba and her people – including those in the Jewish community. I also wanted to find out more about the real Cuba and what it might need from me.
Upon arrival, I quickly saw the real Cuba: crumbling homes, stray animals, horse and buggies (yes, literally) along the roads, and a noticeable lack of toilet seats and toilet paper!
Cuba, in its disrepair, is full of complexity.
According to our tour guide, more than 96 percent of Cubans own their own homes, but they do not have access to materials to maintain the structures, many of which were built 100 or more years ago. Although there are hints of progressive improvements under the country’s new leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, Fidel and Raul Castro’s decisions to create and maintain a minimalist, Communist society will last for decades.
Along our journey throughout the island, we encountered incredible people and experienced remarkable and inspiring music – all of which added to its aura of complexity. We met native pottery makers, artists, and professional costumed people who charge tourists for photographs. We heard the music of Cantores de Cienfuegos, a choir of 12 professional singers lovingly etched in my memory as among the most talented and enthusiastic people I have ever met. We watched a rehearsal for the Orchestra De Guitares, a group of 100 teen guitar players. We visited Campas de Havana, a company dedicated to preserving the ancient art of Afro-Cuban rhythm.
These encounters made it clear to us that artists, celebrities, and athletes are treated with reverence, which translates to higher pay than other citizens, the ability to travel outside the country, and access to permits to import expensive cars. Most other Cubans work directly for the government, which means they receive food rations, utility costs, and healthcare – but not medications.
Which brings me back to what Cuba needs from me.
Our humanitarian mission participants brought the equivalent of 70 suitcases of medicine and vital supplies to the Cuban people, who are in dire need of medications that we in North America take for granted to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, the common cold, and other simple ailments. At its core, this trip was about engaging in tikkun olam – helping us heal the world and demonstrate one of the most important Jewish values to a beautiful community of Jews and people who are not Jewish.
In fact, Cuba’s Jewish community is small. Between 1914 and 1961 there were as many as 15,000 Jews in the country. Today, only 1,500 remain – clustered in small, close-knit, and proud communities. The largest of these is in Havana, whose Jewish community has several hundred members. We also visited the 20-member community of Cienfuegos. In each place, we were curious to know about any oppression or anti-Semitism experienced by people in those places, but everyone we spoke with explained they have always felt safe as Jews in Cuba.
Yes, I did enjoy delicious rum, a mojito or two, and some incredible pulled beef, but that’s not what made the trip life-changing. Witnessing what is beneath the country’s veil of food, drink, and music is what truly changed me forever. To see and feel firsthand the disparity that exists on this tiny, complex island kept me thinking – while I was there and in the months since my return.
Today, when people ask me if they should go to Cuba, I answer in the affirmative: Go. Learn. Be inspired. Talk to the locals. Appreciate the culture. Find out exactly what is needed and find a way to get it there. Helping Cubans starts with a bottle of aspirin for a family, a new pair of tap shoes for a budding dancer, or a pack of adhesive strips for a school. Most of all, this trip reminded me that with just a small step forward, one person can contribute to tikkun olam and that making a difference happens one person at a time.