Friday, April 26, 2013

On a mission to Cuba, with the JDC

By Susan Leach DeBlasio   
Friday, 26 April 2013 02:28

Our community’s women discover Cuba’s vibrant Jewish life
Our community’s women discover Cuba’s vibrant Jewish life
Stacy Emanuel, Dov Ben-Shimon (JDC representative), Jill Goldstein and Susan Leach DeBlasio                   are at the home of famous Cuban artist José  Fuster. /Cuba mission participantsStacy Emanuel, Dov Ben-Shimon (JDC representative), Jill Goldstein and Susan Leach DeBlasio are at the home of famous Cuban artist José Fuster. /Cuba mission participantsPROVIDENCE – Amid Ché Guevera posters, 1950s-era
Chevrolets and crumbling facades of architecturally
magnificent buildings, hope, energy, vibrancy and
synagogue life permeate Cuba’s Jewish community.
Last week, 20 women from the Jewish Alliance of
Greater Rhode Island and Alliance staff member
Trine Lustig returned from a provocative, inspiring
and exhausting 5-day mission to Cuba organized
through the Joint Distribution Committee.  We
explored the programs funded and services provided
by the JDC and met the members of the Jewish
community that we impact directly with the dollars
 we raise and funnel through the JDC.
We celebrated the Cuban Jews’ successes and also bore witness to their critical needs.
An island of 270 square miles, Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898
and became an independent government in 1902.  Good relations with the United
States steadily deteriorated following the 1959 Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise
to power, until the U.S. imposed an embargo and severed diplomatic ties in the
early 1960s.  The U.S. officially views the government as an authoritarian
 regime that has severely restricted fundamental freedoms; U.S. regulations
restrict travel to Cuba except for certain humanitarian, religious, cultural and
educational purposes.
The first practicing Jews in Cuba were American expatriates who came following
 the Spanish-American War (mostly for economic opportunities), then Sephardic
Jews from Turkey (mainly men escaping the army), and then Ashkenazi Jews
(mostly from Poland escaping pogroms and others fleeing Eastern Europe). 
Representing a variety of cultural and linguistic groups, many of these Jews
had hoped to reach the United States. By the 1950s, many were wealthy; most
had comfortable lives.  In 1959, Cuba’s more than 15,000 Jews had educational,
social and cultural institutions such as Jewish schools, newspapers and
philanthropic organizations.
Soon after Castro came to power, more than 90 percent of Cuba’s Jews left. 
Initially most supported the Revolution, but as the government seized businesses,
Jews began to leave.  By the 1980s, few Jews kept up religious practices on the island. 
In 1992, a dental surgeon named José Miller requested and received JDC assistance. 
Other Jewish organizations also provided support; over the years, the community
became a showcase for Jewish rebirth and renewal.  Though economically needy,
 the community of about 1,500 Jews today is rich in Jewish culture and religious life.
The Patronato, built pre-Revolution by Cuba’s wealthiest Jews (the “patrons” of
the community), is Cuba’s largest synagogue and the center for Jewish life.  After
the Jews left Cuba, the Patronato fell into disrepair and, after 30 years of cultural
amnesia, only a few elderly Jews knew how to davenwhen the community sought
help from the JDC; that support restored the synagogue, with impressive modernist
architecture, to its former grandeur. There are Shabbat and weekday services, a
computer center, a video screening room, a vibrant Hebrew School with 100 children
 and 70 adults, a youth center, a summer camp for youth and adults, a kesher 
program and social aid, and many other programs together with social activities.
JDC-funded vans gather Jews to attend services and simchas, including bar and
bat mitzvah ceremonies (11 planned for 2013); they celebrate all the holidays and
hosted 200 people at this year’s Seder, and 400 at the Hanukkah party where Raoul
Castro lit the first candle.
We enjoyed Friday night services led by two engaging, accomplished young adults
and joined the congregation for a Shabbat dinner of chicken and vegetables. 
Although Havana has a kosher butcher, beef is rationed; even chicken is in short
supply.  For that reason, Shabbat dinner is sometimes the only real protein that
some families have all week. Through the JDC, the community distributes
powdered milk to children in religious school.
We met Adela Dworin who presides over the Patronato and the Jewish community. 
The former librarian of the Patronato’s collection of 15,000 books, she gave up her
 legal career to dedicate herself to preserving Cuban Jewish memory. Dworin, who
visits the U.S. occasionally, always returns, as she said, “It is important to strengthen
the Jewish community.”
Dworin greets every Jewish group that visits the Patronato, where foreign tourists
and local Cuban Jews intersect and interact.  She proudly told us that, at her invitation,
Fidel Castro once came to meet with the Jewish community on the last day of Hanukkah.
He spoke before a mesmerized crowd for nearly an hour.  She assured us, as did others
we met, that no anti-Semitism exists in Cuba.
We even visited a government-owned, Jewish-themed hotel called Hotel Rachel. Young
adults are proud to be Jewish, and security is not a concern.  The government permits
Jewish young adults to participate in Birthright and March of the Living; this summer,
45 teens will visit Israel for the Maccabi Games.
The Patronato also houses the community’s pharmacy, founded in 1992 by Rosa Behar,
a gastroenterologist, and her daughter, who holds a doctorate in pharmacy and lives in
the U.S. Behar supervises the pharmacy, a small room with shelves piled high and deep
with all kinds of medicines and medical supplies. Each of us had packed a large stash of
pharmacy supplies – from vitamins, syringes, Desitin and powdered milk to antibiotics
and adult diapers.  Medicine is often in short supply in Cuba, so Behar distributes it as
needed to the community.  Although her parents moved to Israel years ago, she stayed
in Cuba, where she is needed. We heard many similar stories of fractured families, with
young people moving to Israel, and then often to the U.S.
At the Centro Sefaradi, Myra Levy, whose parents came from Turkey, said that different
synagogues address different needs, and they all work together.  They also have Shabbat
dinner and a Kiddush following Saturday services. For some, Levy said, “It’s the best meal
of the week.”
Community members freely patronize both the Patronato and the Sephardic Center,
which has a senior day care center, where 67 adults receive meals and enjoy activities
such as Tai Chi, pottery and films.
Many Jews have intermarried; in a surprising twist, today, the non-Jewish spouses
usually wish to convert to Judaism.  For the past 22 years, an Argentinean rabbi visits
Cuba every couple of months to perform conversions and weddings under a huppah
Last December, he performed 27 weddings and 93 conversions.
We enjoyed havdalah at the Patronato after a spirited demonstration of Israeli folk
dancing.  With lights darkened, we stood in a circle and swayed as we blessed the wine,
spice box and braided candle.  We sang in unison and wished one another a shavua tov,
a good week. There were no faces, only voices, all singing together.
The voices of Cuban Jews are all working toward becoming one community, while
preserving their past; what they share is deeper and stronger than any differences. 
There is hope, vitality, intensity and cohesiveness in this community. Perhaps that was
the most significant and lasting “take away” of our mission, one that we can use right
here in Rhode Island, right now. We began as a diverse group of individuals who then
shared a powerful, impactful experience as Jewish women; thousands of miles from
our local Rhode Island community, we bonded with – and grew to respect and care
deeply for – each other along the way.
While not financially successful, many Cuban Jews are highly educated physicians,
engineers and lawyers; these individuals have become the community’s leaders. We saw
many responsible, committed, powerful Jewish women leaders who exhibited different
models of community leadership; each had a sense of ownership and pride.  In the next
20 to 30 years, strong, young adults will assume their roles.  Whether they remain in
Cuba or emigrate, it will not matter.  The JDC and other organizations are rescuing one
Jew at a time, all around the world, and each one will enrich the global Jewish community wherever their future lies.  As a JDC sign at its New York office proclaims, “There is only
one Jewish world, intertwined and interconnected.”
SUSAN LEACH DEBLASIO (, is a vice chair of the Alliance
board and an editorial board  member of The Voice & Herald.

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