Fifteen thousand Jews lived in Cuba in 1958. After the Revolution the following year, 90% of the Jewish population migrated to other countries. At one point, the Jewish population sank to 800. Today, there are 1,500 Jews in Cuba.
So why send a JUF Mission to a country of 11 million people, only 1,500 of whom are Jewish? The answer is easy-we are JUF. We help Jews wherever they are, no matter how big or small their numbers may be.
We arrived in Havana on a Friday in mid-February. Before attending services at Beit Shalom Synagogue, we had the honor of hearing from the current head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, one of JUF's main overseas agencies), who explained how critical The JDC has been in helping the Jewish community revive itself and avoid becoming extinct.
In the early 1990s, when a change in the Cuban constitution allowed for greater religious freedom, JDC began working with Cuban Jewish leaders to rebuild Cuban Jewish life. Because of their efforts, there are five active synagogues on the island. As most Cuban families can barely support themselves, the Jewish communities rely heavily on support they receive from JDC to keep the synagogues running. Congregants are treated to a chicken dinner every Friday night and lunch after Shabbat services. For most, it is their best meals of the week.
In Havana, 150 children and parents attend educational programs each weekend. Because transportation is difficult in Cuba, JDC has purchased vans to move congregants and students to and from their homes and the activities. There is Sunday School, celebration of Jewish Holidays, and Birthright trips to Israel. This year the Community is especially proud to be sending 54 youths to represent Cuba in The Maccabi Games.
It was so moving to witness how close and loving the community is. Everywhere we went, people were so happy to see each other (and us!). At Friday night services, I was struck by watching the Cubans follow along with every prayer and sing every song. Many times throughout the service, the congregants had their arms around each other. Saturday morning, at the Sephardic Synagogue, it was particularly touching to watch a woman well into her 90s being tenderly helped to the bima so she could participate in an aliyah.
We had many memorable experiences while in Cuba. We were entertained by The Buena Vista Social Club, had a wonderful evening at The Tropicana, listened to an educational and informative presentation at The American Interest Section, visited artists in their homes, dined in private Cuban homes (Paladars), learned to love rice and beans and the Cuban version of Diet Coke. We were in awe of the colonial architecture and the perfectly restored cars from the 1940s and 1950s.
My most memorable experience happened in the town of Santa Clara, home to 35 Jews. There we met David. David was born in Santa Clara, and it had always been his dream to rebuild the synagogue. When his son made aliyah to Israel, David followed him there, but his heart never left Cuba.
He decided he could do more good for Jews in Cuba than in Israel, so he returned home to turn his dream of a Santa Clara Synagogue-rebuilt with the help of the JDC-into a reality.
Then he brought us to the restored Jewish Cemetery, which also housed a beautiful Holocaust Memorial. As we all stood around the Memorial, David told us the story about a town and its watchmaker. Everyone in the town owned a watch. Whenever one of the watches would get dusty or break, the watchmaker was there to dust the watch off or to fix it. One day the watchmaker died. As the townspeople's watches started breaking, some people kept their watches, and some threw them away. One day, a new watchmaker came to the town. For everyone who had kept their watches, the watchmaker was able to give them back time.
David used this story as an analogy to the story of the Jews of Cuba. In the early 1960's, when practicing religion was outlawed, some Jews gave up any remnants of their Judaism, while others held on to it. In 1991, when it became possible for Jews to start practicing their religion again, with the help of the JDC, all those who held on to a piece of their Judaism were able to get it back.
Then David said the most touching thing of all--he thanked us for being fixers-the ones who helped make it possible to "fix" the Jews of Cuba and give them their Judaism back.
Martha Davidson, who lives in Highland Park, was the 2012 campaign chair of JUF's Women's Division.