In September, Phil Friedman of Livingston made good on a two-and-a-half-year-old promise: to donate a Torah scroll written in Israel to the Patronato synagogue in Cuba.
When he got off the bus with the nearly completed scroll in front of the main synagogue in Havana, which was built in 1953 and renovated in 2000, a man waiting there broke down in tears.
“He was probably 75 years old, and he started crying out loud,” said Friedman. “He was falling apart. He was so emotional that for the first time he was participating in such an event in Cuba.”
Friedman first visited Cuba on a mission with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in 2009. “During that mission, I discovered the main synagogue did not have a kosher Torah. Based on the emotions at the time and my natural reaction, I committed on the spot to dedicate a Torah written in Israel,” he said in a phone interview.
He commissioned the scroll as soon as he returned. It took more than two years, and as it neared completion, he arranged the dedication trip back to Cuba, which included a group of 22 people. Mostly friends and family, the trip also included UJC professionals as well as Adele and Herman Lebersfeld of Livingston, who have participated extensively in UJC missions around the world. The group departed for Cuba Sept. 13 and returned Sept. 18.
In addition to visiting the Conservative Patronato, they had a chance to visit Havana’s other remaining two synagogues, one Orthodox and one Sephardi, as well as the Jewish cemetery and a memorial for Holocaust victims.
Friedman, who owns Computer Generated Solutions, an international technology company based in the World Financial Center in New York, brought not only the scroll; he also provided funds for the Sephardi synagogue, and the group brought pharmaceuticals to be distributed to the entire Jewish community.
Friedman expressed his delight in the community of worshipers at the Patronato during the group’s Shabbat visit. “It’s such a vibrant Jewish community,” he said. “I’m so impressed they have a lot of young people participating. The whole ceremony was very uplifting.”
Hundreds of people came from various generations, both for Shabbat and then for Havdala on Saturday night. Just after Shabbat, Yehuda Malul, the sofer, or ritual scribe, who traveled with the Torah scroll from Israel, added the last few letters, as is customary, under a huppa made from a tallit, before the entire community. The entire assemblage sang and danced with the scroll as they welcomed it into its new home.
Worship and celebration, however, may not have been the only draw. “We hosted two dinners,” said Friedman. “Consider that the average salary in Cuba is [about] $20 per month. A lot of Jews come to the synagogue because it is serving Friday night dinner and in many instances, it’s the only chance for Cuban Jews to have a chicken dinner. There is still rationing in Cuba, and people get one pound of chicken per month.”
Originally from Mukachevo, Ukraine, Friedman came to the United States in 1976 and so brings a unique perspective to the situation of the Jews of Cuba. “I can relate to what’s happening in Cuba and the conditions the Cuban people live under. I understand the problems the Jewish community is experiencing,” he said. “I was deprived of access to Jewish education growing up; it was not allowed in the former Soviet Union. I have been making up for it for the last 35 years.”
Adele Lebersfeld, who was last in Cuba in 1998, was also impressed. At that time, she said, the community was much smaller, its members were older, and the Patronato building had fallen into serious disrepair, with a leaky roof, termite infestation, birds nesting in the rafters, and a lack of proper electricity or air conditioning.
“Now, the synagogue is so beautiful,” she said.
The Lebersfelds, members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, own Capitol Lighting; Adele served on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and in various leadership roles at UJC MetroWest.
Friedman, a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, is engaged in tzedaka projects not just in Cuba but around the world. He is president of the board of American Friends of Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
He called the trip “revealing, eye-opening, and emotional.”
“People need to appreciate that we have a lot of Jews in small and large countries who deserve our help and our attention,” he said. “We are sometimes too comfortable here and we forget our brothers and our sisters around the world.”