Devorah Landau is a freelance writer and Jewish educator. She has a special interest in Jewish renewal and hopes to travel with JDC.
An established rule of successful Jewish events is to serve food. That holds for the Jewish community in Cuba as well, but with a poignant twist: rationing makes it difficult for Cubans to get enough protein, so the communal Shabbat chicken dinner JDC provides helps fill a vital nutritional need.
It would be misguided to suggest that the large crowd, some 200 people of all ages who gather each Friday night at the Patronata Synagogue in Havana, comes for the food alone, or even primarily. In Cuba, the joy of Jewish community is so palpable -- the eagerness to sing traditional songs, to dance and to be together – that it is no exaggeration to say that Shabbat dinner, most importantly, feeds the soul.
On a recent four-day mission to Cuba, JDC Board member Debby Miller, her daughter Stacy Gorelick, a new member of JDC Ambassadors Circle, and 26 people – including many friends recruited by Miller and Gorelick – had the opportunity to attend a Shabbat dinner and get to know some of the 1,500 members of Cuba’s Jewish community. They also observed JDC programs like the country’s only Jewish Sunday school and toured historic Jewish sites like the Sephardic Synagogue and the Hebrew Cemetery.
Gorelick said her mother’s longtime involvement in JDC motivated her to join the mission.
“My mom has been devoted to the Jewish people as long as I can remember. She has been particularly committed to Jews around the world who have no one to turn to but us,” she said. “Her passion permeates everything she does. Being in Cuba with her and seeing her delight in sharing the incredible work of JDC was inspirational.”
Joined on the mission by their American cousins and friends of Cuban heritage, Miller and Gorelick viewed sites that connected them to their own past: where their cousins’ family once lived and had a store, and where those cousins’ grandmother was buried.
“It was quite moving for our family and our friends to explore their Cuban roots and family heritage,” Miller said.
Mission participants brought with them much-needed supplies such as medicine, vitamins and toiletries. Miller and Gorelick also brought toys and gifts for Chanukah, as well as craft items such as needles, thread and yarn for seniors. In contrast to the nearly empty shelves at government-owned pharmacies, the pharmacy at the JCC is fully stocked.
“It looks like Costco,” Gorelick joked.
Once a flourishing community of 20,000, the Cuban Jewish population plummeted when Castro came to power in 1959 and 95 percent of the Jews fled the country. Since the 1990s, though, Cuba has been experiencing a Jewish renaissance, encouraged by JDC’s reentry into Cuba in 1991. Today, in collaboration with the local Jewish community, JDC helps Cuba’s neediest Jews, develops Jewish leaders and revitalizes Jewish life. JDC-trained lay leaders lead services and teach in the Sunday school; JDC brings in a visiting rabbi to conduct life cycle events such as weddings, ritual circumcisions, and bar and bat mitzvahs. There is a Jewish summer camp, adult education, Israeli dance festival and communal holiday celebrations.
The Cuban Jewish community, though small, is diverse but cohesive. It includes Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, secular and observant, Jewish-born and converts.
“The Jews of Cuba face tremendous hardships, many live in poverty, and salaries fail to cover expenses for basic necessities,” Gorelick said. “Yet, we witnessed vibrancy and a sense of hope for the future."
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