Supporting Cuba’s Jewish Athletes

September 11, 2013


When 46 Cuban Jews traveled to Israel this summer to participate in the Maccabiah Games, it wasn’t just the first time the island nation had sent athletes to what’s been described as the “Jewish Olympics.” It was also the largest delegation sent “to represent who they are proud to be: Cuban Jews,” said Luciano Jaimovich and Alejandra Kotilar, JDC’s professional team in Cuba.

The road to the Cubans’ participation began about a year ago, when World Maccabiah contacted JDC to arrange a meeting with the Cuban Jewish community and extended an invitation to the island’s athletes to participate in the Games, all expenses paid.

It didn’t take long for the Cuban Jewish community to spring to action.

“We don’t have any professional athletes in our community, but if you give us six months, we’ll make them,” said David Prinstein, the community’s vice president.

The delegation drew from the cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba, and Santa Clara. Athletes competed in table tennis, indoor soccer, karate, archery, and softball events.

Though some Cuban Jews have participated in programs like March of the Living and Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Maccabiah Games represented a new frontier, Jaimovich and Kotilar said.

“It’s significant that for the first time, a very small Jewish community of 1500 people participated in one of the biggest Jewish events the world over,” they said. “From the beginning, the goal was to bring home the medal of dignity, but the athletes surprised us with another five medals — an incredible accomplishment.”

Abel Hernandez, the delegation’s flag bearer, won a bronze medal in Karate, as did Heberto Bedova. Roxana Gonzalez won the bronze medal in archery and won the silver and gold medals in team archery with her brother Rafael Gonzalez.

JDC’s help was instrumental in preparing the community for the games. Among other services provided: a monthly food packet with milk, pasta, and extra protein; a pair of sneakers for each athlete; mineral water and energy drinks for practices; transportation for the players; uniforms; and a coach from Argentina who traveled to Cuba for 10 days of intensive training with the indoor soccer team.

After the success of their first trip to the Games, the Cuban athletes are looking forward to the next Maccabiah.

“With the spark left by the games, all athletes are willing and excited to continue training and hopefully develop a new sports program for the Jewish community of Cuba,” Jaimovich and Kotilar said. “Perhaps, this may turn into the next program that will enhance social and cultural community life while rebuilding Jewish identity on the island.”

The Cuban delegation to the Maccabiah Games was generously supported by Melanie and Charles Barry, the Young Leaders of CJP, Heidi and Howard Gilbert, Cindi and Harold Goldfine, Kay and Bruce Goldstein, Patricia and Thomas Grossman, Jon and Judith Harris, Susan and Michael Horovitz, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, Nancy and Steve Schachtman, the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Steven Tisch, Jean and Sheldon Wert, and Howard and Kathy Zack.

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