June 11, 2012

JDC Ambassadors In Cuba

JDC Ambassadors Mission to Cuba
on the steps of the Patronato Synagogue in Havana

By Dov Ben-Shimon, JDC Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships

I've just spent the last weekend staffing the JDC Ambassadors Circle Mission to Cuba, to see the amazing Jewish community there, learn about our challenges and horizons, and participate in some unique experiences. I've been to Cuba many times to show JDC supporters and Ambassadors the work we do, and each time I see new and inspiring aspects of our work.

This time, three special aspects stood out:

ONE: I saw, once again, how our history shapes our mission and its impact. In the Havana Airport, I met a young Ukrainian-American couple, returning from a museum trip to Cuba. When they heard that I work for the Joint, they both excitedly shared their life stories of being helped by the Joint to escape the Soviet Union in the 1980s and move through the transit camps in Europe.

 And for those of you who haven't been to Cuba in the last year ... the Havana Sephardic Synagogue, in its renovated old-new sanctuary, has opened a moving and thought-provoking exhibit on the Shoah (Holocaust). It is educational and incredibly important as a tool for Jews and non-Jews alike in Cuba.

TWO: I learned, once again, how there is hunger in the Jewish world but there is also a unique thirst. There's real hunger in Cuba - and we work to provide nutritional support, challah and milk programs, kosher meals, a chicken dinner program for the synagogues, and more.

But there's also an amazing thirst, for Jewish knowledge, for community, for involvement. Sitting in the Patronato, the main Conservative synagogue and community center, and watching hundreds of Cuban Jews dancing and praying and eagerly celebrating their Jewish community, is inspiring and humbling. Singing Shabbat melodies, participating in a Havdalah ceremony and watching Israel dancing, learning about the aspirations and horizons of young Jewish leaders in the community ... and much more ... shows you the excitement and eagerness for Jewish life now vibrant in Cuba.

THREE: Finally, I saw, once again the high quality of Jewish leadership in Cuba. Who would have imagined, perhaps even five years ago, that we would be looking today at a situation in which the Joint no longer runs synagogue services, no longer maintains the overhead and utilities and expenses of the synagogues, the education programs, has handed over so many areas of responsibility to the Cuban leadership? We say that we have phase-down programs and discuss the concept of "kill-switches" in our programs around the world. And in Cuba you can really see how this has worked, and how this is going to develop in the years to come.

Seeing Cuba through the eyes of members of the JDC Ambassadors Circle and Society is a life-changing experience. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to take this group of warm, committed and philanthropic leaders to see a microcosm of the Jewish world and the work of the Joint. It has reminded me of why our mission statement, that all Jews are responsible one for another, is not just a core value, but also a business plan.

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