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The Holy Land of Havana: Our Federation’s Mission to Cuba

From December 5th-8th, 37 members of our community united as one to experience Cuban Jewish life and culture as part of our Federation’s 2013 Major Gifts Mission to Cuba. This mission was a significant journey for our Federation—over 50 years ago, the United States embargo against Cuba was set into motion and tourism is so restricted that only a limited number of people are allowed to visit with special licensing.

Though there are approximately 1,400 Jews on an island of 11 million, there has been a vibrant Jewish renaissance in Cuba in the past couple of decades. Alongside our partner on the ground, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our support has been crucial in keeping Jewish life alive, as the country’s Communist regime has drastically affected the economy and thrown many residents into poverty. In fact, Our Federation has helped fund Cuba’s only Jewish Sunday School, assisted Jewish educators and trained local Jews to lead religious services. Today, Cuba even has its first active Bar and Bat Mitzvah program in 40 years, a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal. Our mission to Cuba gave community members a chance to get up close and personal with our impactful work and with those who have benefitted from our support.

On Thursday, December 5th, both Valley and City donors, strangers before their chartered flight, connected as they walked off the plane onto the tarmac and drove throughout Havana, a city very different from our own.  A bit of culture shock greeted those unfamiliar with Cuba’s third-world nature as the landscape consisted of elaborate Old World architecture and ’57 Chevys. But despite drastically different surroundings and language barriers, after dinner, some mission participants ventured out into Havana and even went to the iconic Tropicana for a taste of the local nightlife!

On Friday, the group visited the Jewish Cemetery in Havana to see the Memorial to the Holocaust—the first such memorial built in the Western Hemisphere—and recited Kaddish on behalf of all of those who were lost during this tragic period in our history. Afterwards, they walked through the city’s Old Jewish Quarter and stopped at Adath Israel, Havana’s traditional Orthodox synagogue and home to Cuba’s sole mikvah, as well as a kosher butcher shop, which has a limited supply of meat for those who are fortunate to have special rations.

This was followed by a wonderful lunch with young leaders of the Jewish community, in which mission participants got a glimpse of Cuba’s Jewish future. Mission participants met Brian, a young leader who runs the local Jewish youth group, talked about his experiences participating in Birthright Israel and as an athlete in the Israel Maccabiah Games (what is known as an Olympics for Jewish athletes) earlier this year.

After lunch, the group toured the Patronato Synagogue, a Conservative temple in Havana, where its female president addressed them. The group also visited the Patronato’s community center and pharmacy, where mission participants cared for Jews in need by donating a carload full of greatly needed, high-demand medications and supplies, from thermometers to adult diapers to vitamins and much, much more. Year-round, our Federation helps stock this pharmacy, which dispenses medications at no cost—not only to Jews, but to all of those in greatest need.

Shabbat was perhaps the experience that surprised our mission participants the most. Though trying to communicate with local residents in Spanish proved difficult for many, once Kabbalat Shabbat services started at the Patronato, everyone sang the blessings together in Hebrew, reminding us all that no matter how far away from home you are, the Jewish community will welcome you with open arms—and you’ll feel right at home. Afterward, everyone participated in a Shabbat chicken dinner, funded by the generosity of our Federation’s donors, a weekly meal key to the health of at-risk children and elderly citizens. With food shortages and government rationing that allocates only ¾ lb. of meat per individual per month, these Shabbat dinners are vital for sustenance.

Saturday morning began with a visit to the Sephardic Hebrew Center, the only Sephardic synagogue in Havana City, which was founded in 1954. Interestingly enough, though Cuba is a bit behind the times in some regards, the president of this synagogue was also female, illustrating the importance of women and their leadership in Cuban Jewish life. 

After a relaxing walking tour through old Havana, where mission participants were able to visit and make purchases at a flea market, everyone participated in Havdalah with the local Jewish community and enjoyed a performance by Cuba’s Israeli Dance Troupe. Israeli dance festivals are funded by the generosity of our donors, who also support informal educational activities such as camp programs and holiday celebrations so important to sustaining Jewish life in Cuba.

All in all, our group’s brief encounter with Cuban Jewish life was eye-opening and rewarding as mission participants grew closer and became “a community within a community.” We were able to experience the culture with all five senses and truly get a better understanding of how our impactful work in Los Angeles touches the lives of our extended Jewish family in Cuba.

We will be offering another mission to Cuba in December of 2014. For more information, please contact John Magoulas at JMagoulas@JewishLA.org.

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