By all accounts, Cuba’s economy is in a shambles. Its infrastructure is crumbling, its cities are dilapidated, and its people live in poverty.
“You don’t appreciate being a Jew living in America until you get back from a place like Cuba. It’s not just the lifestyle and the resources here, it’s the personal freedom, the ability to say and do what we want,” said Lori Klinghoffer of Short Hills, who just returned from a mission to the island nation sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The group of 26 spent five days in the Havana area, visiting with the capital’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish communities and meeting with a variety of experts.
Michael Weinstock of Short Hills, who cochaired the mission with his wife, Tina, said that despite its proximity to the United States, Cuba feels very far removed.
“You have the feeling you are in a totalitarian country. People constantly assume someone is listening to every conversation. The odds are that nothing will happen, but you don’t want to be another Alan Gross,” he said. Weinstock was referring to a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who is serving a 15-year prison sentence following his 2009 arrest for “subversive” activities. USAID asserts that Gross was helping the local Jewish community gain Internet access.
The Jewish community in Cuba numbers about 1,500 people. Federation groups from around the country generally bring aid, food, and pharmaceuticals, which are scarce despite free health care in Cuba.
Sharing Friday night services and dinner at the Sephardi community synagogue provided perhaps the most poignant and instructive moment of the trip for Weinstock. While dinner included a “not-so-appealing square piece of fried something,” the Cuban attendees clearly felt otherwise. He said he was asked by more than one local, “‘Are you finished or can I finish that for you?’”
“They did not have enough food — so what was so unappetizing to us was a treat for them,” Weinstock said.
He said he was also moved by a visit to the community Sunday school, where the kids were raising money and goods for Cuban victims of Hurricane Sandy. “They are unbelievably poor, but they followed the Jewish tradition of charity to help people worse off than them,” Weinstock said.
The trip marked Klinghoffer’s second visit to Cuba; her first was in 2010.
“More so than almost anywhere else, it’s the obvious level of what could have been and what was lost that is so sad,” she said. “The place is literally crumbling. The country is in disrepair. It was magnificent in the 1950s and almost nothing has been restored or kept up.”
Still, visiting with the Jews of Cuba buoyed her spirits.
“It’s a small but vibrant Jewish community with an amazing leadership that keeps on trucking,” she said, with help from Jewish federations and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Klinghoffer said she enjoyed attending a bar mitzva at El Patronato Bet-Shalom, Havana’s Conservative Ashkenazi synagogue, on a Thursday morning. The Torah scroll that was used had been donated by a MetroWest family, Phil and Rose Friedman of Livingston.
“To be part of that in a country where religion was not formally allowed until a few years ago — to see the joy in their faces and watch people dance and dance with them and share in their simha — it was something,” Klinghoffer said.
Although there has been much written about the liberalization of the country and the emerging entrepreneurial opportunities, Klinghoffer was not so impressed. “We did not see huge changes,” she said.
Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the federation, was on his first visit to Cuba in 15 years, and, he said, “The infrastructure is even worse today than it was the last time; it’s had 15 years more of neglect.” And while he called Cuba “a very depressing place,” he added, “It’s always great to see Jewish communities thriving.”
The group had meetings with Cuban dignitaries, including a former Supreme Court justice, a former ambassador to Iraq, and an economist.
John Caufield, the chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, “gave us the scoop, the real story on Cuba in contrast to the propaganda the other folks gave us,” said Kleinman.
Kleinman said he hoped Jewish groups and the government officials will increase pressure to release Gross. Earlier this month, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a resolution urging the Cuban government to look into Gross’s medical problems.
“They will hold him until the cost of keeping him is higher than the cost of letting him go — then they will release him,” Kleinman said.