Cuba: Possibilities & Questions

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Rabbi Yitzhak, March/April 2013

It’s been over a month since our TBI travelers returned from Cuba. I have since had some occasions to share about the journey with our congregation, but many people have expressed interest in further chances to learn about the mission. As you may know, we traveled to Cuba under a special license for a Jewish Religious and Humanitarian Mission.

Each day we were in Cuba we had opportunities to connect with members of the Cuban Jewish community and learn about their history, their current situation, and to some degree, their hopes and needs. We brought with us a significant supply of medicines that are needed in Cuba as well as some consumable medical supplies, children’s clothing, art supplies, wheelchairs and walkers. These materials were greatly appreciated and many were immediately distributed to people in need.

More than what we gave, I feel certain that we received. It was a great honor to meet with the stalwart and visionary leaders of the Jewish communities of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santa Clara. Each of these communities has within it extraordinary leaders who have envisioned the possibilities for their struggling communities. They have lived through times of religious repression and have emerged from those times with strength and clarity to build for the present and future. They were, in a word, inspiring.

It was particularly meaningful to visit these individuals and communities during Hanukah. The symbolism of the miraculous oil that lasted beyond any reasonable expectation was paralleled by the human spirit of these Jews. Against all odds they kept their Jewish identity alive and were able to sustain it until a rebirth became possible. That rebirth is now underway.

A bit of history. In 1959 there were perhaps 15,000 Jews in Havana. Within two years almost ninety percent of the Jewish population fled Cuba due to the insecurity brought on by the revolution. Within those two years all of the religious functionaries of the community left for the U.S.A. and the once lively Jewish community had become barren. Its main synagogue developed the tradition of having prayer services with what became known as a “Cuban Minyan” meaning a quorum for prayer services made up of seven or eight people and two or three Torah scrolls. This was the situation for many years until the Joint Distribution Committee started to send teachers from Argentina to help the Jews of Cuba gain knowledge about Judaism and the many traditions that give depth to Jewish identity.

When we attended the Shabbat service at Patronata, the main synagogue in Havana, we were impressed by the large attendance, the skillful prayer service leadership offered by a young man and two young women and, the friendly and familiar atmosphere that we entered.

With all of this said, there was also a much more difficult side to the experience of the journey. There is widespread poverty in Cuba. Many of the ideals that their revolution sought have been attained. There is almost one hundred percent literacy now, universal health care, housing, although terribly run down, for all, and at least subsistence rationed food for all. It was painful also, to be aware that the population in Cuba has no free press, extremely limited access to the internet, a lack of freedom of speech and a denial of many other basic human rights that are needed for the human spirit to flourish.

I realize that I was only in Cuba for eight days and am far from an expert on the subject of Cuba, its human rights, its economy or just about anything else about Cuba. What I do know is that I came away with a deep sense of dissonance and questions about why we as United States citizens are continuing an embargo that must surely make life increasingly difficult for our neighboring Cubans. What are we gaining from adding to their suffering? These disturbing questions require answers. Our policies have real, although perhaps immeasurable impacts. I hope to seek out answers to these unsettling questions. In the meantime I also hope to keep in my memory the beauty that I saw in the faces of the people, the music I heard everywhere, and the great human spirit I witnessed on this journey.