Before Cuba became a hot news item, many people we know did missions to see the country and provide humanitarian aid to the Jewish community there. That community, which once was vibrant and 15,000 strong, is now maybe a tenth of that, the vast majority having emigrated within two years of the Castro revolution of 1959. The revolution put an end to the corrupt Batista regime. In its place came a lot of things that I am better off writing about upon return to the States. The needs of the Jewish community remain enormous, and with great leadership from congregants J and S, Beth El organized our own mission which was preceded by a mandatory six week Scolnic Institute class on the history and current realities of Cuba and its Jews.
The Jewish community that remains is concentrated in Havana in the west of the island with smaller populations in that region and in the east. We started our journey in the east which is not the usual beaten path. Our charter flight landed in Holguin, our hotel was in Santiago de Cuba, and our community visits were there and in Guantanamo. Getting to and from towns on our bus, a Yotung manufactured in China, was interesting. The roads are not in the best of shape, the surface on a par with Glenbrook Road below Wilson ( try that sometime), with the differentials being the well documented vintage cars, the passenger busses that are mostly converted trucks packed with cargoes of people, and the occasional cow that wanders into the fast lane of the occasional four lane road.
Our first visit was in Guantanamo, a town that is more ” thriving” than most because of the proximity of the U.S. base (to which we assuredly did not get even close) which provides jobs but is also blamed for the growth of prostitution on the island. The Jewish community is most easily found on the second floor of the home of R. There are all of 64 Jews in Guantanamo at this time; once there were 1200. R has brought great energy to the community there, they celebrate Shabbat and holidays, have had two B’nai Mitzvah in recent years, even have a little dance troupe. They came out to meet us in force, like we were some kind of angels, mostly because unlike Havana they get very few visits from Jewish groups. We brought them gifts, the usual combination of meds and kid items and some religious supplies. It felt like a big mitzvah.
Our second visit, over Shabbat, was in Santiago de Cuba. That community has its own nice little building in downtown, with services and meals every Friday night and Shabbat morning. We davvened with them, and it was pretty special both for us and for them and for the 6-8 Jews from Holguin who travelled four hours each way because they heard we were coming. Santiago Jews get few visits also. Their whole community is all of 30 in number (once 1000+ ) so our 25 made a major impact and I saw the tears in the eyes of their leader E at one high point in the Kabbalat Shabbat service.That was just before the electricity went off, the third time that day. I did the Torah reading in the morning, otherwise it would have been read from a Chumash. The member who leads services is R’s cousin and is typical of the Jews we have met so far in that just his mother is Jewish and his wife is a Jew by choice. We brought them all kinds of gifts, including a synagogue calendar to replace the three year old one they were using. We have several Spanish speakers in our group and the meal time conversations were good. We left with hugs like old friends, also with concerns. Despite their dedication, who knows what will be with such a tiny community?
Sunday was more touring, including the Spanish fort El Morro that guarded the harbor of Santiago up through the Spanish American War, which had a lot to do with Cuban independence, and then we took our flight to Havana on an Antonov 158. U.S. equipment, large and small, is pretty much absent due to the embargo which makes very little sense by now.
Tomorrow we begin meeting the Jews of Havana. I hope to write more soon, now that the internet is available. Best, Bill Rudolph