Don Rosenthal of Westfield said he isn’t all that adventurous a traveler, but when the suggestion of a trip to Cuba came up, he jumped at the idea.
Together with Barbara and Howard Rood of Scotch Plains, he will co-lead a mission to Cuba next March 1 to 6 on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — the first such trip the organization has ever undertaken. His wife Joanie will be going too.
“It had never crossed my mind to go before,” Rosenthal said, “but it sounded like a really interesting opportunity.”
Aside from his personal curiosity to see the communist island nation, Rosenthal has another motivation. He is chair of the federation’s annual campaign, and he said he sees the trip as a community building opportunity. The federation has sponsored numerous missions to Israel and to visit Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Last year, a group that went to Israel added a four-day trip to Egypt.
“This is a chance to get people involved in something different than the usual mission,” Rosenthal said, “especially if they have been to Israel a number of times already. And perhaps it’ll be a chance for people who haven’t been all that involved with the campaign to get more engaged.”
A maximum of 30 people will go on the trip, and anyone whose family gives $5,000 or more to the campaign is eligible to sign up. The price will be around $2,750 for those traveling solo, and $2,475 for those traveling with a partner.
“The response so far has been terrific,” Rosenthal said. “People are definitely intrigued by the idea.”
Barbara Rood admits to being an avid traveler. She led a trip to Egypt last year, and it was she who suggested the Cuba excursion. “I’ve been fascinated by the country for years,” she said. “I think that it’s going to get easier to go because they’re easing restrictions, but we’re ‘blazing the trail.’ It’s exciting.”
Jessica Mehlman, the federation’s assistant director of financial resource development, is responsible for planning from the Central end. The group will stay at a five-star hotel in Havana. They will meet with members of the local Jewish community — currently estimated at about 1,500, out of a total population of 11.4 million — and visit places of Jewish interest, like the Patronato, the Jewish community center and Conservative synagogue in Havana.
They will also have a chance to see secular sites — like museums, a cigar factory, and the Hemingway House a few miles outside Havana, where the author lived for over 20 years.
Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president and FRD director, said that with regulations eased somewhat, it has become easier to travel directly to Cuba. The group will go as a humanitarian mission, bringing needed supplies to the Jewish community there. She said, “It’s a very exciting opportunity for people to connect with the small Jewish community there in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
With the end of communist control of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s major patron, some two decades ago religious repression eased and Jews have been able to slowly return to their religious and cultural heritage. But those events also meant a loss of Soviet funding to the state, and a sharp increase in shortages of all kinds of basic goods.
Each person on the Central mission will be entitled to bring in 15 pounds of donated supplies. The organizers will decide what they will bring, probably, Rosenthal said, in tandem with representatives of the Cuban community. “They need everything,” he said. There will most likely be a collection of whatever items they choose to take to allow members of the Central community a chance to support the mission.
The trip is being planned in coordination with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is supported by the Central federation and which resumed its operations in Cuba in 1991. Since then, it has helped provide food and medicine to the Jewish population, and has helped its members revive their religious and social life. About 80 children and 40 adults now attend weekly Jewish education classes around the country, and the visitors from Central might have a chance to meet with some of them, as well as the people emerging as leaders of this revived community.