March 5, 2010

Havana Bound

Registration for the 2010 JDC Ambassadors Circle Mission to Cuba is about to close.  If you are interested in joining us for this amazing experience, please contact 

From The Baltimore Jewish Times
February 26, 2010
Phil Jacobs
Executive Editor

A group of friends and relatives recently visited the Jewish community in Cuba.

Sometimes, while traveling by air, we look outside of our plane’s window at 30,000 feet and wonder just what the land looks like on the other side of the clouds.

For Stanley and Bailey Fine and their friend, Ronnie Buerger, that high-altitude view was of Cuba.

The friends would be on their way to or from the Cayman Islands for their vacation. They knew they were passing over Cuba. They wondered what it was all about.

“When you sit on the beach with somebody for seven days, you become good friends,” said Mr. Fine.

The Fines have spent some 15 years at the Caymans in December — 14 of them with Mrs. Buerger, who is co-publisher of the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES. About two years after they first met, they would meet again here in Baltimore at a Hadassah event honoring Debs Weinberg. Her husband, Joe Weinberg, was once vacationing in the Caymans and would tell the Fines and Mrs. Buerger about American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee missions to such places as Cuba.

“Ronnie, Bailey and I asked Joe to ask JDC to set up a trip for us,” said Mr. Fine.

The trip would occur from Oct. 16-20 and include the Fines, their daughter Laura, Mrs. Buerger, Debs and Joe Weinberg, and their three children, Jenna, Danielle and Ben, and Glenn, Debbi and Jesse Weinberg.

The trip would include 11 Weinberg cousins and Mrs. Buerger, who joked that she felt like an adopted cousin. The trip was to visit Havana, the largest part of the country’s 1,500 total Jewish community.

“Everyone got along well,” said Mr. Fine. “It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

The group flew from Miami on a nonstop direct flight to Havana. Mr. Fine explained that when Fidel Castro came to power on Jan. 1, 1959, a couple of million Cubans left for Miami. Of those millions, about 15,000 were Jews. Almost 90 percent left, leaving 1,500.

“In 1960, he basically said Cuba is a communist nation, so there are no religious affiliations allowed,” Mr. Fine said. “Whatever synagogues, churches or mosques there were went into disrepair.”

Mr. Fine continued that in 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, subsidies from the former Soviet Union stopped coming to Cuba.

“Castro decided that his country would be in for a difficult time economically,” said Mr. Fine. “That’s when religion could come back.”

There was, however, a generation and a half who didn’t know how to practice any religion.

The JDC came into Cuba in 1991 to help the Jewish community rebuild itself. There are seven Jewish communities across Cuba. Havana is the hub with its three synagogues — one Orthodox, one Sephardic and the other Conservative.

The center of Jewish life is the Patronato (the Jewish Community Center and Conservative Synagogue in Havana). There, Shabbat meals are served, services held, classes for children and adults offered, and even a pharmacy is available. JDS sponsors a Shabbat meal each week.

JDS provides so much, including a cantor. He leads services and teaches.

“We met with the Jewish community,” said Mr. Fine. “We met also with the president of the Jewish community. She was a college student at the time of the revolution. Her father was originally from Pinsk [a town in Belarus]. When the revolution occurred, her father’s business was taken over. The family stayed in Cuba, even though he wanted to leave for Miami.”

Fine said that everything structurally has deteriorated in the buildings. Citizens get health care, education and, most importantly, food ration cards. But the average person in Cuba earns $24 a month. Many citizens, who are fortunate, have relatives in places such as the U.S. who send them funds for their very survival.

“It’s a country where there is no opportunity,” said Mr. Fine. “The Internet is not allowed. TV and radio is government-owned and controlled.”

Mrs. Buerger said that she always wondered what it was like there, even prior to her flights over the country.

“What would we see?” she wondered. “Is it what we heard about? So it turned out, it was a little bit of everything. It was the ugly and the beautiful. We have no idea what these folks are like until we speak to them. You’d think they’d begrudge us, but they didn’t. They were so open and so friendly. It was like you moved into a Jewish community and knocked on someone’s door and there they were. They were the same. Their way of life is different, there income is ridiculous and they have food allotments per month. Unless you have money for the black market, you don’t get the things you don’t even think twice about in this country. It was beautiful and sad at the same time. Nobody walks around particularly thinking, woe is me. They think it is going to change. But I don’t know if it’s going to change without bloodshed.

“Going there was something we wanted to do,” added Mrs. Buerger. “Through the JDC, we were able to do it. JDC is a phenomenal organization that does amazing things in countries like this.”

Mrs. Buerger was also touched by the Jewish learning she saw. She said she was overwhelmed by the great lengths the people go through to learn about their Jewish heritage. Add to it that their religion was really only available to them during the past 10 years.

“Nobody is twisting their kids’ arms to go to Hebrew school,” she said. “They are going because that’s their community. Their classrooms are filled.”

Reality Check
From the time Mrs. Buerger, the Fines and Weinbergs got off the plane, they knew this was a place frozen in time. While the 12 friends brought over-the-counter medicines and toiletries for the synagogue pharmacy, they saw others on the plane bringing a wedding gown, a statue of the virgin Mary, tires, and yes, even a kitchen sink.

For Debs Weinberg, it was all about having her children understand what others don’t have, and what all of us sometimes take for granted.

“From the moment we landed, there was a feeling of privilege that we take for granted in the U.S.,” she said.”

Mrs. Weinberg noted that the entire time she was there, she didn’t notice one boat on the water. It was as if, she said, the people were looking inward, not out at the water. There wasn’t a sense of freedom in the country.”

She said that “freedom” was the overall theme of her family’s experience there. Like Mrs. Buerger and Mr. Fine, she was appreciative of the JDC’s role there.

“JDC was helping people run their services, helping them with any sort of Jewish continuity, making sure they had the materials that they needed. There were 1,500 people there to continue Judaism, and it was thriving. What amazed us was that they were teaching us Jewish dances, they were entertaining us at Shabbat dinner.”

Mrs. Weinberg said that one didn’t have to look far for a reality check, especially when one saw how food was rationed and other simple parts of life valued. Someone asked a person in her party if he could have his pen. “My son Ben was most impressed by how beautiful the architecture was,” she said. “I think the fact that there was so much beauty, against the poverty we saw.”

The people there, she said, are waiting for a change, hopeful.

“We were surprised to see that people were not in despair or misery,” said Mrs. Weinberg. “There were pockets of beggars, but most of the people we saw were getting on with their lives. They were really into following baseball.”

Also, she said that the Jews there have “never felt anti-Semitism. Judaism gives them an outlet to be free, to be able to practice their religion. There was also an entire vibrant group of younger Jews. It reminded me of Passover. We do without during Passover because it helps us remember what’s really important.”

Or, as Mr. Fine said, “When we got home, I was grateful to be back in a place with freedom of opportunity and information and general freedom.”

He remembers being on the bus between the airport and the hotel, seeing Castro billboards.

“We didn’t see Coca-Cola, we saw Castro,” he said.

Still, he added, “You’ve been flying over something for the 15th time; it was all a mystery to me. Now when I look out of the window from the plane, it will mean something.”

Beth Tfiloh Congregation sent a women’s mission to Cuba’s Jewish community this week, Feb. 21-26. The 40 participants were asked to bring about 15 pounds of items, including medicines for asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, certain antibiotics, any over the counter drugs, vitamins, bandages, dental products, pens and pencils.

“It’s exactly what you see from pictures of what it was like in ’59,” said Laura Fine. “It’s frozen time. It’s buildings are crumbling; you can tell the streets sparkled at one time. But it hasn’t been touched since 1959. I thought the art and the dance and the music were thriving there. “I was in awe of the Jewish community,” said Ms. Fine, who is a third grade teacher in New York City. “They had a packed synagogue of young people leading it.” She said her students found it interesting. Any place in front of them, she said, is a magical place. “We were able to compare what lives were like for an eight-year-old in Cuba compared to an eight-year-old here. They asked ‘Why can’t they leave? Who says they can’t?’”

••Trip Facts
The Weinbergs, Fines and Mrs. Buerger stayed at the Parque Central Hotel.

On their first day, they would tour the Patronato Synagogue, JCC, pharmacy and youth lounge. They’d meet with Adela Dworin, president of the Cuban Jewish Community. That night, Shabbat, they’d enjoy a Kabbalat Shabbat service and a chicken community dinner.

The following day, they’d walk the streets of beautiful, yet sometimes crumbling buildings. They’d go to a staples store and see everyday commodities rationed to citizens by the state.

They’d see Cuba’s Holocaust Memorial, the first built in the Western Hemisphere.

Debs Weinberg prepared a beautifully designed book of photography and comments, all adding to the memories.

Cuba Fact Sheet
Information provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
• JDC re-entered Cuba in 1991.
• Population: 11,423,952
• Estimated Jewish Population: 1,500

• To help meet humanitarian, religious and cultural needs of the Jewish community.
• Provide assistance for the renovation of Jewish communal services.
• Train local religious and youth leadership to run educational, cultural and religious activities.
• JDC and its partners distribute kosher food to Jewish community members for Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Purim and Pesach.
• All members of the community attending Friday night services at any of the island’s synagogues are invited to a Shabbat chicken dinner following services.
• Powdered milk is distributed at weekly Jewish Sunday school programs.
• JDC helped establish the pharmacy at the Patronato.

Jewish Life
• More than 100 members of the Havana Jewish community attend weekly Sunday school classes.
• JDC initiated bar and bat mitzvah programs. In 2008, 11 bar and bat mitzvahs were celebrated.
• JDC supplies Spanish language Jewish educational materials.
• JDC provides training for local youth leaders and teachers.
• A renovated kosher butcher shop provides meat for the community.
• Three synagogues operate in Havana, and one each in Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey.

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