For Iris Acker of Long Branch, a recent trip to Cuba was an opportunity to connect with her own family history.
“This was my first visit, but my mother was born there,” said Acker. “Her uncle, Kalman Wodonos, was a cofounder and president of Adath Israel, an Ashkenazi synagogue in Havana. There is an article about him still hanging on a wall in the shul.”
Acker and her husband, Jeff, traveled to the island nation on Dec. 17 along with more than 30 other Middlesex and Monmouth County residents on a four-day journey sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
“This is one of a series of trips organized by federation in an effort to introduce our supporters to Jewish communities all over the world, as well as to let them see the actual results of their philanthropy,” said federation CEO Keith Krivitzky, who was part of the group.
With aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — using funds coming from federation supporters and other donors — Cuba’s Jews tend to be a little better off than the general population. Children usually get a solid Jewish education, and many young adults go on Birthright Israel, Krivitzky said.
And yet, participants were touched by the extreme poverty of most people, and the apparent solidarity of the small Jewish community, which numbers about 1,000.
“We used to look at pictures in family albums showing what Cuba was like in the 1940s and 1950s, but it’s very different today,” Acker recalled. “My mother’s family was well-to-do and lived in a very nice home. Now homes like that are gone or have fallen into disrepair. And it’s almost impossible to find a car that is less than 50 years old.”
“Cuba is incredibly poor,” agreed Krivitzky. “The poorest person in the United States lives better than 90 percent of the people in Cuba. The infrastructure is abysmal. Imagine Tel Aviv 40 years ago with zero upkeep. That’s what it looks like.”
Krivitzky said the trip aimed at strengthening relationships among participants, and inspiring them to act on their first-hand knowledge.
Leslie Gaber of Manalapan, who served as unofficial photographer for the group, saw the Cuban Jews as “strong, positive, and eager to work together.” They are willing to face up to challenges each day, and they are tremendously grateful for what little they have, she said.
At the Sunday School at a synagogue, said Gaber, “I took one picture of a small boy who was given a snack consisting of a glass of milk and a single Saltine cracker. It wasn’t much, but he seemed so appreciative,” she said. The children are given crackers with mayonnaise, the group was told, because of the protein in the spread; the school feels it may be one of the few times the youngsters get any protein in their diet.
There is little if any anti-Semitism in Cuba, said Krivitzky. Nevertheless, “I don’t believe the community is sustainable as a Jewish entity. There is a considerable amount of intermarriage. The people are so poor they must rely on our aid to keep them going, and this has been true for more than 20 years. Younger Cuban Jews are emigrating at a fairly quick rate, most going to America — Florida in particular — or to Israel.”
It’s important to remember that Cuba is “very much a communist country, with the government maintaining tight control of the economy,” he said. It’s unlikely that conditions will improve much in the near future.”
Regardless of misgivings, the federation group members enjoyed their time with the Cuban-Jewish community, said Gaber. “This was my second time traveling with federation — I went to Israel a couple of years ago — and they always make sure that there’s plenty of fun in addition to the educational aspect of the trip. It’s important, too, that when you go with federation, you feel safe.”
Previous Jewish journeys offered by federation have been to Israel and Budapest. The next one is set to go to both Israel and Berlin this spring, said Krivitzky.