Beth-El’s Cuba Mission an eye-opening experience

Group shares some of their insights on visit to Havana


Twenty-nine travelers left Miami for Havana on Feb. 10, and spent eight days traveling through Cuba on Temple Beth-El’s Cuba Mission. They visited the Jewish community and learned about the history and culture of the formerly forbidden nation only 90 miles south of Florida.  Here are some of the travelers’ observations:    

Elinor Nacheman

When the announcement was posted about Temple Beth-El’s trip to Cuba, the immediate thought in my mind was that this was a trip I had to go on.

Although I have traveled a fair amount, I have never experienced travel in a Communist or Third World country, so I had some trepidations. However, any worries were far outweighed by the idea of visiting a country “trapped” in time,  and seeing the Cuban landscape before massive changes to accommodate growing tourism transforms it forever, and certainly learning more about the remnant Jewish community of Cuba.

The trip turned out to be one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had. Our guide, Jorge, shepherded us around, candidly answering the questions we fired at him on our bus travels and walking tours. He was eager for us to understand his people, his culture and his country’s history ... he was a teacher before he turned to working in tourism, but, as he explained, he still is a teacher – just in a different “classroom.”

The heartbreaking facts about Cuba are the grinding poverty and lack of basic materials to do the simplest repairs. When Fidel Castro came to power, 90 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population left for Miami. The remaining population continues to shrink as younger Jews apply to go to Israel and end up staying. The remaining community struggles along with aid from several Jewish sources, such as Canadian Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the many temple-based humanitarian groups that pass through.

In Havana, we visited with Maya Levy at the Sephardic Center and Adela Dworin, the longtime president of the Jewish community at the Patronato, Havana’s main synagogue.  We shared a memorable Shabbat service at the Patronato and, following that, were invited to Shabbat dinner, along with a few other visiting Jewish groups. It was an inspiring moment during services when all the young people were called to the bimah and they filled the stage – those young folks are their hope for the future.

More sobering was our visit to the home of Rebecca Langus, in Cienfuegos. Rebecca seated us in the front room of her tiny home, and we were introduced to her family. She is the central leader of the community, which she told us consists of 20 people in five families. They have no synagogue but proudly continue to keep their Jewish heritage alive as best they can. The donations we left in goods and cash, while generous and so appreciated, seemed so inadequate after hearing them speak.

Also sobering was our visit to the old Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa, where we recited Kaddish at the Holocaust memorial (the first one in the Western Hemisphere).

We experienced a well-rounded view of the arts, culture, architecture and people of Cuba in a fairly short time. My hope is that change will come gradually, with careful thought given to how to make those transformations without sacrificing the very things that make Cuba so special. This is a place I know I want to return.

Jim Tobak

Although I didn’t exactly have low expectations about our mission to Cuba, I did go with conflicted expectations and emotions. Looking now in the rearview mirror of our journey to the time warp that is Cuba, I consider the experience memorable and in many ways quite remarkable.

Many things stand out, but certainly a high point was our interaction with members of the small yet vibrant Jewish community that remains in Cuba nearly 60 years after the revolution. The tenacity and resilience with which they have held onto Judaism, and to each other, is yet another testament to our faith – and indeed the human spirit.

Our marvelous tour guide, Jorge, repeatedly said we would leave Cuba with more questions than when we came  –  and for me this was quite true. Havana is a beautiful, if rundown and dilapidated, city, which I believe can rise from years of neglect and again be the jewel of the Caribbean. My central question – a concern really – is one that I think is shared by many Cubans: With the seemingly inevitable reestablishment of relations with the United States and the tidal wave of money that will crash ashore on the island, will this historic and architectural treasure fall victim to the less desirable, more pernicious aspects of unbridled capitalism? 

Despite some adversity, our intrepid crew was a remarkably cohesive and convivial band of explorers. And our mission guides, Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Sarah Mack and Cantor Judy Seplowin, provided both outstanding leadership and moving spiritual inspiration. 

Adelina Axelrod

I was traveling in Cuba with a group from Temple Beth El to bring medicine and supplies to three Jewish communities: Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. It is to be noted that the monthly salary of a Cuban worker is between 20 and 22 pesos. Cubans learn to supplement their meager income by trading in the black market and receiving much needed remittances from relatives residing abroad.

On a cobblestoned side street in Old Havana, a bodega  (a state-run grocery store) caught my eye. It is the place where Cubans use their ration card to purchase groceries. The store was dark except for a lone bare lightbulb hanging from a thin black wire. It was the second week of the month and already the shelves were empty.