The first time Esther Edelman visited Cuba, it was 1959, she was recently married, and she and friends went “on a whim” during a vacation in Key West.
And that was her last visit until she returned in March, this time with other seniors from JCC MetroWest. The group was among those rushing to see Cuba since the thawing of relations between the United States and the island nation. Tourism to Cuba was up by over 17 percent in 2015, with more than three million tourists visiting, compared with 2014.
Most of Edelman’s peers on the JCC’s Margulies Senior Center excursion to Cuba in March were first-time visitors. How did returnee Edelman react to the visit?
“Everything there was old then,” she said. “And it’s still old!” She figures in 1959 she and her friends were among the last visitors able to go to Cuba easily, before it was essentially cut off to American tourists.
She joined the JCC group, she told NJJN, curious “to see if it was different.”
The trip, specifically designed for seniors, ran from March 7-15 and included 15 NJ residents joined by nine participants from a Chicago JCC. Though it was only the second time JCC MetroWest had sponsored such a trip to Cuba — the first was this past December — it followed many that have gone over the last decade or so on essentially philanthropic missions to Cuba with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The JCC is planning another trip in the fall — this time not just for seniors.
Edelman was struck by the poverty she witnessed. She said she was “very sad to see people still living in huts and shacks.”
The JCC groups visited both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues in Havana, as well as a Sephardi JCC in a private home in Cienfuegos, about 180 miles southeast of Havana. They brought donations of food (including poppy seeds for Purim hamantaschen) and medicine, along with adult diapers, which are scarce in Cuba.
Elaine Robbins of Marlboro joined the trip because she “wanted to see Cuba before it becomes another Miami. I wanted to see how the people live and if they are satisfied with their way of living.” But, she said, she returned home with more questions than when she left.
She was struck by the dissonance evident in Cuban society. “I noticed the university was gorgeous, so impressive. And then there were the hovels and horrible places people live,” she said.
“We saw people walking around, dressed nicely, with nice haircuts and highlights and their nails done. Where do they get the money for that?” Robbins wondered, given that even food is rationed. “The shelves in the supermarkets are empty. There’s no meat or fish.” Even the synagogues were sparsely equipped. “There were no decorations on the bima. You just didn’t get that warm feeling you get going to a temple here,” she said.
And she noticed that anything American, particularly stores that were once easily recognizable, like Sears, “were in shambles, or were burned-out buildings.”
She wondered what happened after people finished their degrees in the free universities and whether Cubans would like to see their country become democratic. “I asked a few people questions, but didn’t get answers,” she said. While she was “impressed” with the Jewish community, “I noticed they couldn’t have survived as well as they have — even though they are not doing great — without the money coming from the U.S.”
One of the highlights of both the December and March trips turned out to be a visit to the Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa. Gina Goldman, Margulies director at the JCC’s Adult Enrichment Center at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, staffed the March trip. She said that when the December group saw the poor state of the cemetery, overgrown and with broken gravestones, the visitors took up a collection on the spot. When the March group arrived at the cemetery, they learned that that money had been used to restore three graves and they found a plaque thanking the group. The March visitors were so moved, said Goldman, that they took up a collection as well. “All of us were overcome. Even the handyman was crying with us in the cemetery.”
Participants also found other ways to donate to the Cubans.
Edelman said that at one point she came upon a group of teenage girls, and she gave them some of the makeup, nail polish, and lipstick that she brought with her. “They started to cry and hug me. It was very emotional to give kids things they couldn’t afford on their own that we take for granted,” she said.
Because the Jewish community in Cuba is aging — everyone who can, leaves, said Goldman — there was no generation gap between the JCC group and the Jewish communities they visited. “We brought our seniors to help their seniors,” she said.
Although travel restrictions have eased since diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were restored in July 2015, going there is still not as easy as simply booking reservations and hopping on a plane. All travelers must still apply for a visa. Those are still only granted for travel that falls into one of 12 categories — things like family visits, U.S. government business, and journalism. Jewish missions to Cuba fit into two of the categories — religious activities and humanitarian projects.