In a mission that combined humanitarian aid with religious observance, a professor and four Hillel members from Drew University spent six days in Cuba earlier this month.
Using Havana’s Orthodox synagogue, Adath Israel, as a base, the volunteers offered advice on preventing and treating diabetes.
They distributed screening supplies as well as Spanish-language booklets on diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyles — all directed to people whose poverty may prevent them from adequate treatment.
They conducted workshops at the synagogue for Jews and non-Jews alike.
“Diabetes is an acute problem in Cuba,” said Jonathan Golden, Drew Hillel director and an associate professor who teaches religion, anthropology, and Middle Eastern studies.
“It is a ballooning problem and an area where we thought we could be helpful,” he told NJ Jewish News two weeks after returning to campus.
The participants included Melanie Robbins of Massachusetts, Hailee Greene of Pomona, NY, and Lindsay Waskow of Baltimore, all members of the senior class. The fourth member of the contingent — Priscilla Sanches Salles of Sao Paulo, Brazil — is Golden’s wife and is studying for a master’s degree in education at Drew.
The mission members were prepared by a training session with experts from the American Diabetes Association. Drew’s Medical Humanities Program, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, and Morristown Memorial Hospital combined to donate thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies.
Before leaving their campus in Madison, the students collected medications and health pamphlets for the Cubans.
“But when you go, you make a much deeper connection,” said their professor. “It is one thing to collect stuff and hand it off to somebody, but we went to interact with the community.”
Although America enforces a trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba, it lifts such restrictions for humanitarian groups. The Drew delegation visited at the same time that a Jewish American named Alan Gross was standing trial in Havana for alleged “acts against Cuba’s independence and territorial integrity” — i.e., spying. Gross claims he was distributing communication equipment to Jewish groups.
(Gross was found guilty on March 14 and sentenced to 15 years in prison; American diplomats are pressing for his release.)
Despite Gross’ ordeal, “the Cuban people were very receptive to our being there,” said Golden.
The group is currently planning what Golden called “a much more ambitious undertaking” to enlist the Cuban government in the fight against diabetes and to provide people with healthier food choices.
“People talk about Cuba’s wonderful health-care system, and in some ways it is excellent and more egalitarian than what we have here,” said Golden. “But somehow there is a real lack of understanding of this disease in Cuba. Most of the food is rationed. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face to eat brown rice instead of white rice, but when they go to get their rations, they don’t have brown rice.”
In addition to the supplies for diabetics, the group delivered a wheelchair to a family with a sick child and baseball gloves, catchers’ masks, and batting helmets to children.
They took in a baseball game; attended Friday night services at the Patronato, a Conservative synagogue; and were called to the bima of Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, a Conservative Sephardi shul in the Cuban capital.
Golden said he intends to spread the spirit of Cuban-style Judaism back at Drew. The returnees will celebrate a Cuban Shabbat at Drew Hillel on April 1 “to show our photos to the whole group and see if we can get more people interested in going next year. We are planning to go back for sure,” he said.