Before leading a 22-person mission to Cuba organized by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Don Rosenthal said he did his best to drop all preconceptions, allowing the reality to come as “a complete surprise.”
He found it thrilling and fascinating to see the evidence of free enterprise emerging in the communist country and the impact of philanthropic dollars in strengthening the Jewish community.
“I saw so much potential there,” Rosenthal, the federation’s annual campaign chair, told NJ Jewish News. “Things are at a tipping point.”
The March 1-6 mission was the first organized by the Central federation. It was planned with help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has a major presence in Cuba.
Participants recalled celebrating Shabbat at the Patronata, the main Jewish community center in Havana, singing familiar tunes with about 130 Cuban Jews, and putting their arms around one another to say the blessings on sons and daughters.
They talked about the country’s crumbling infrastructure and the extraordinary architectural beauty, the glimpses of budding change, and the lingering signs of authoritarian control.
Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president, and Jessica Mehlman, the assistant director of financial resource development, accompanied the group. Mehlman said organizing the mission — including complex visa requirements — was an administrative challenge. “But,” she said, “it was an amazingly positive experience.”
The group’s itinerary included lectures on history and culture; a walking tour of Havana; and visits to museums, an art studio, a cigar factory, Ernest Hemingway’s home, and restaurants and night clubs. They also attended a baseball game, evidently carefully watched by security personnel.
But the focus was on Jewish life. Officially, the trip was “solely to assist the Jews of Cuba under a general religious license issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury,” according to a clarification required of all such trips.
‘Mitzva of the trip’
Each member brought at least 15 pounds of humanitarian supplies. Guided by the JDC and the Havana community, the group took with them a stash of prescription medicines, which they gave to the community pharmacy at the Patronata. They also brought other basic supplies, backpacks collected from the campers at the JCC of Central NJ’s Camp Yachad at the end of last summer, and arts and crafts materials for the children.
Though the group stayed in Havana, Mehlman said, much of that bounty will go to Jewish communities in other areas usually overlooked by foreign benefactors.
The group attended a Friday night service at the Patronata and got to share in a bat mitzva celebration and a communal dinner. Prayers were led by young congregants, who, said mission participants, were quite fluent in the liturgy.
Emerson Amador lives in Westfield, but his parents came from Cuba in the late 1950s. When his mother, who lives in Florida, heard that he planned to go on the mission together with his friend Michael Simon, also from Westfield, she was horrified. But he had always wanted to go, and he said he found it fascinating.
Amador speaks fluent Spanish with a Cuban accent, so he was able to connect with the local people, he said. He picked up signs of surveillance that others might have missed, but he also saw clear signs of change.
“Change is in the air,” he said. “Being a real estate broker, it really struck me what a mess things are in. They don’t have paint or lumber or anything to do repairs — and how much potential there is.”
When Eric Harvitt looked for his relative’s grave in the semi-derelict Jewish cemetery, Amador was able to explain his search to the caretaker. They found the bronze plaque that vandals had pulled off the grave stone. Together, they worked out an agreement with the caretaker for future care of the grave, financed by Harvitt. “Maybe that’s why I was meant to go on this trip,” said Amador. “It was the mitzva of my trip.”
For Amador, the trip home packed yet another punch. “It really made me think about what my parents went through,” he said, “and it made me so glad to get home to this country. I’d like to go back — but not until things change.”
Simon said he had always been intrigued to see how the socialist experiment worked out in Cuba.
“I was always fascinated by Cuba, the revolutionary Che Guevara, and how Castro’s vision for a Marxist country was working out. As an idealistic American college student, I loved the idea of Cuba being a successful Marxist country. Thirty-five years later, I visited and my romantic economic illusions were shattered: the Cuban economy is totally broken,” he said.
“Castro abolished rents and mortgages, allowing people to stay right where they lived mortgage- and rent-free,” Simon continued. “However, the state owns everything — so if you roof leaks, you need to apply to the state, and it could take years to get it repaired. An architect told us that over three buildings fall down every day in Havana.”
Former federation president Eleanor Rubin, who lives in Tinton Falls, was enchanted with Havana. “I’d love to go back,” she said.
Despite the poverty — the ration cards for food, the fact that even a doctor earns no more than $20 a month — “the people seem incredibly happy,” she said.
Rubin noted that the Jewish community, estimated at about 25,000 in the 1960s, is now between 12,000 and 15,000, “depending on whom you ask.” But the statistic is stable thanks to a number of conversions each year. Though there is no resident rabbi, one comes in from Argentina about once a year and officiates at conversions and a group huppa wedding.
Rubin said that while many in the Jewish community are well educated professionals, much of their communal life is dependent on support from other Jewish communities.
“Without our help,” she said, “the community would perish. And we can’t let that happen.”