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Jewish Cuba as Experienced by Seth Menachem

Photo Credit: Chuck Eberly

This year’s Cuba Mission took place from December 2nd-December 6th with 34 people eager to explore this unusual and exotic corner of the world. In this first post of our two-part blog about Jewish Cuba, you’ll hear from Seth Menachem, a community member who won his spot through our “My Federation Story” essay contest. Next week, you’ll hear from a young adult who visited Havana following a Birthright Israel LA Way trip he staffed.

The country I heard about from the Cuban community I grew up in in 1980s Miami was very different than the one I encountered on the Mission. The feeling of a police state that I expected to permeate Havana just wasn’t there. For example, people now have permission to practice their religion, and be openly gay.  People told me they didn’t like the government, and they looked forward to change happening.  The few blocks where WiFi is permitted were packed with the youth on smart phones and laptops.  But there was enormous poverty, government anti-American billboards dotting Havana, and a country of people who are barely able to make a living.  Taxi drivers and hotel maids make more than neurosurgeons.

The synagogues were fascinating—not so much because of the physical infrastructure, but because of the people. This is a community that wants to be connected to the much smaller community of other Jews.  Most of them are intermarried, and haven’t had any connection to Judaism for decades. But they are building a community. The youth we met were cool—they were funny, fun, and liked being a part of the synagogue, a place where they meet friends and potential romantic partners, learn about their roots, pray, study, play games, and have access to a good meal, and opportunities to go compete in Maccabiah or travel with Birthright Israel.

The medicine that we brought went right to our Federation’s partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project pharmacy, which, when handed a prescription from their doctor, are doled out to the community for free.  The teenagers were playing video games in the youth center, donated by The Jewish Federation.  And the ping pong table, also donated, was where the kids learned how to play well enough to compete in the Maccabiah games.

We had the opportunity to celebrate both Shabbat and Havdalah with the local Jewish community. It was surreal.  At times it felt like I could have been in any shul anywhere in the world.  And then, when a tune sounded a little strange, I remembered just how different this community is, that these are people who are learning how to pray for the first time.  The highlight of the trip for most of us was the Havdalah service where we all sang and swayed arm in arm, and then danced salsa with people young and old, Cuban and American.

The other thing that stood out to me was the people.  They were extremely friendly, and I spent one night on the waterfront of Malecón making friends with the locals.  The wariness that’s typically endemic in American culture just wasn’t there.  Guitar-playing kids, young couples, and abuelas alike all smiled and were happy to talk to me, even though I only know a handful of Spanish.  There also seemed to be very little crime despite the poverty.

I love what Federation does.  And the people with means who are a part of Federation are the kind of people who want to do good with their money.  The most poignant example for me was on the last night when we discussed the trip. When a woman raised her hand to make a comment, she had only one.  She wished that she could “adopt” the children she met in the synagogue.  She wanted to be able to have access to them, so she could provide whatever they were lacking.   The power of that was enormous.  And that’s what I’ve seen Federation do, whether in Israel, in the United States, or on a tiny island off the coast of Florida with an estimated Jewish population of 1,100.

Seth Menachem makes his living as an actor and writer, and is currently getting his Masters in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University.  He is doing his clinical training at Beit T’Shuvah.  He is also married with two kids, and writes essays for publications like the Jewish Journal and Huffington Post because he likes to leave no time for sleep.

With the help of our partner organizations, Jewish Federation Los Angeles is proud to offer hands-on opportunities for community members to experience Jewish life around the world. Our Federation is currently planning another Mission to Cuba in December 2016. For more information on this or any of our other available Missions, please contact Mitch Hamerman at (323) 761-8133 or MHamerman@JewishLA.org.  

Check our blog next week to hear from one of our Federation’s BRIdge Fellows about his experience in Cuba in the second half of this two-part series!

Photo Credit: Chuck Eberly

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