Ninety minutes after our flight from Miami touched down at Jose Marti Airport on March 3, the 24 members of Temple Emanu-El’s Mission to the Jews of Cuba were deeply engaged with nearly 100 students at El Patronato, the school, center, and synagogue that serves the Jews of Havana.
One member of our group, artist and teacher Shari Seltzer of Westfield, had prepared an art workshop focused on the “hamsa,” an ancient Jewish amulet that tradition says brings good fortune. Assisted by other mission members, Seltzer guided students from age five to 17 as they eagerly participated in the project.
This was just the beginning of a dozen intense and profoundly moving encounters with our fellow Jews of Cuba during the eight-day mission. There were meetings with presidents, leaders, and the youth of Jewish communities in Havana, Santa Clara, and Sancti Spiritus and visits to several Jewish cemeteries, one of which contains a remarkable memorial to victims of the Holocaust.
We worshiped with our fellow Jews at two synagogues on erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning, engaged in significant dialogues, and delivered school supplies, clothing, and medicines that we had brought from the States to aid those in need. Our cash gifts to the various communities included generous personal donations from each member of our group and contributions from our temple’s Bible class and the Tzedaka Fund of our religious school; all these gifts were received with grateful appreciation.
The mission visited the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, which serves in place of an embassy. At a meeting with the public affairs officer, I raised concern about the incarceration since 2009 of Alan Gross. Gross is a contractor serving a 15-year sentence for bringing communications equipment to Cuba while on a democracy-building program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Several senators and members of Congress as well as Jewish organizations have appealed for Gross’s release.
One member of our group searched for and found the gravesite of a relative; another returned, with our delegation, to the apartments in Havana that were the childhood homes of her mother and father.
We were inspired by the successful efforts to revive the Jewish life of Sancti Spiritus by Daisy Barlia, who took over after the passing of her husband; by the humor and determination of Adela Dworin, who leads Havana’s Beth Shalom synagogue; and by the commitment of David Tacher, who spearheaded the building of Santa Clara’s new synagogue. Many of Cuba’s Jews made aliya to Israel or immigrated to the United States and other countries, but the solid core of 1,500 who remain on the island are engaged in Jewish study, prayer, and culture. For the first time, Cuba’s Jews this summer will send a team — 55 strong — to the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Our mission also experienced some of the rich culture of Cuba, including the impressive Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, the estate of Ernest Hemingway, and private art galleries.
With me on the mission were Jacqueline Bass and her mother, Charlotte Gelfand; Marcia Dube; Audrey Fisch and Mark Flynn and their son, Max; Coralee Greenberg; Dr. Allan and Nancy Hermann; Rita Hermann; Eileen Migden; Natalie Mines; Dr. Larry and Shari Seltzer and their children, Joel and Charlotte; Walter Simon; Jennifer Strauss and her mother, Nancy Leeds; Warren and Beth Tischler; Jacqueline Wellen; and Cynthia Zemel.
During our visit, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez died. At that moment, we were acutely aware of the wide chasm between our feelings about Chavez — no friend of Israel, the Jewish people, or the United States — and those of the Cuban people, who had become so dependent upon him.
Nearly all economic activity is strictly controlled by the government, although in recent months some relaxation of restrictions has given hope to the possibility of increased entrepreneurial initiative. But it was clear that the evolution of the economic system is painfully slow and that the Cuban people, resourceful and educated, face enormous obstacles.
It was our good fortune to have accompanying us an extraordinary tour guide, Alexis, and a U.S. tour agent, Batia, whose contacts in Cuba amazed us at every turn. Carolyn Shane and the temple’s office staff were exceedingly helpful with pre-trip administrative matters.
Having connected constructively with our fellow Jews in Cuba, we returned ever more grateful for the freedom and democracy that we enjoy in the United States.