It has been many years since I wrote about Cuba for CNS. Since then, there have been a lot of new members so many people do not know of our connection, particularly to the Jews of Santiago de Cuba and the Community of Guantanamo.
Services at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva de Santiago de Cuba - our sister congregation
When I started in 1994, there was a small community that extended across the island but had little knowledge of Judaism and how to participate in community. People were slowly returning to their religious practices after being deserted by the Russians in 1989. By 1992, lack of food and medical care was so severe that very hungry people were returning to their religious practices for comfort in spite of the law that read anyone who was a Believer could not be a member of the Communist party. The significance of this was that Believer's could not hold top jobs nor their children go to the best schools or to the university. By 1993, the law was changed because no one was paying attention to it. Also, by 1993, Dr. Jose Miller Fredman, head of the Jewish community of Cuba, had invited the JDC to come and help him restore the community. The JDC began a program of Sunday morning food for those who would attend classes for both adults and children. They started a small pharmacy for Jews and non-Jews with the approval of the government. After I arrived, I started a program of Friday night chicken programs which, thankfully, the JDC took over in a few months and continues to this day.
Torah study at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva de Santiago
Bob and I first arrived in 1994 to found a chapter of Hadassah. Lois and Gary Marcus were on this trip. It was not a happy time and some people talked about giving their breakfast to their children; others talked about having enough food for half the month and surviving on sugar water the other half. A lot of long term health problems started at this time, like neuropathy.
One year later, I went back with a group to visit the communities in the provinces. When we came to Santiago de Cuba, we met several eager people who were excited to be getting back their building after 30 years of it being used as a community center or dance studio. They first came together because an older lady wanted to say kaddish for her husband. Someone had a prayerbook with the kaddish in Spanish. The group decided to get together some Friday nights for a potluck, This encouraged Andres Novoa, who remembered sitting next to his grandfather in synagogue, to start reading in Spanish the parasha of the week. Thus, he became the religious leader. He was eager to learn Hebrew but he could not use the dictionary at all. I showed him how and when I came back a year later with my first group. he was able to lead services and understand some of what he was doing. The first experience with Santiago led me to ask Ljuba Davis of Congregation Beth Israel to go to Cuba and teach them how to do the high holiday liturgy. They didn't have any machzorim. She also taught them to make challah and dance. Her sister organized the religious school and worked with the teachers.She said that they were like sponges, absorbing every thing they taught.
Ljuba's experience encouraged me to take Rabbi Stuart Kelman and some members of Netivot Shalom as well as to ask Congregation Netivot Shalom to become a sister congregation to Hatikvah in Santiago. On that first trip together, we all taught in the synagogue under the direction of Rabbi Kelman. At that time, we were invited to come back for the first b'nai mitzvah (two cousins) that was to happen seven months later. Thus came about second trip with Rabbi Kelman and Netivot Shalom members and it was very exciting to watch the two boys whom Andres had trained in just 7 months. Rabbi Kelman was so inspired that he began to plan to bring Andres, the religious leader, and Eitan Behar, the youth group leader to Berkeley to attend the CAJE conference at Stanford and to study at both Netivot Shalom and Beth Israel. We made it happen and it was a huge success for all concerned.
Jewish Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba
In 1996, I was encouraged to form a non-profit to help with the work. We did that in 1997 and Eitan, the youth leader in Santiago de Cuba designed our website even though he could only communicate by email from his workplace at the bank but could not get to the web. Since that time, Bob and I have been very active in supporting other communities across the island and establishing sister congregations to help individual communities. We have helped found a senior center in Havana at the Sephardic synagogue building, we have funded a special program for new babies and toddlers called "Bottoms Up", furnished a classroom for pre school in Havana, brought thousands of pounds of medicines and humanitarian aid, taken many groups to interact with the communities, sent college students to teach in communities (which the Cuban government will no longer allow us to do), and helped Cubans making aliyah to Israel to adjust, find jobs, and give general emotional support.
Our sisters and brothers in Cuba are doing better than years before. The communities are receiving a lot of help from visitors and many have relatives out of the country who send help. These families are doing well. Others are struggling, like the average Cuban, to make ends meet. Often the ends don't meet. Religious life has progressed well over the past 20 years under the direction of the JDC. We now focus our help on the provinces where the JDC has resources to be a minimal help.
June presents gifts from
CNS to Guantanamo Community
Bob and I will be going to Cuba in December and can carry your unused portions of Rx meds as long as they are not outdated. We can also take over the counter nonRx meds that are not outdated. If you would like to purchase new items, we would be delighted to carry them. We would also be super delighted to carry money for purchase of toiletries and canned food when we are there. Everything can be left at the synagogue office or better yet, brought to our home. You can reach us at 510-526-7173 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.