<![CDATA[B'nai B'rith International - Cuba Blog]]>Fri, 12 Feb 2016 15:27:06 -0500EditMySite<![CDATA[Cuban Jewish Relief Project: 20 Years & Counting Of Tikkun Olam]]>Wed, 18 Mar 2015 15:44:11 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/cuban-jewish-relief-project-20-years-counting-of-tikkun-olam
PictureSienna Girgenti
Cuba has long been the understandably forbidden fruit of the American tourist. But the long isolated mystery of the Caribbean boasts more than just idyllic streetscapes and an enchanting mix of history, music and nature. For B’nai B’rith, Cuba presents a unique opportunity to fulfill our commitment to helping communities through “Tikkun Olam.”

While Cuba is busy making headlines—particularly for the thawing of relations with the U.S.—what you might not know is that the island maintains a surprising and vibrant Jewish life dating back centuries. At its peak, the community numbered 20,000, but today the passionate Jewish community counts maybe 1,000. 

The reality of life for Cuba’s Jews—and broader Cuban society—is the story failing to garner attention. Welcome to Cuba, home to miles of stunning white sand beaches, premium cigars, oak-aged rum, classic American cars from the 1950s—and where providing fundamental necessities proves a difficult challenge. 

The daughter of Adath Israel community leader Yacob Berezniak poses for a photo.
Jewish motifs adorn the doors to Beth Shalom Synagogue (Havana).
The daughter of Adath Israel community leader Yacob Berezniak poses for a photo.
Jewish motifs adorn the doors to Beth Shalom Synagogue (Havana).

Despite the fact that Cuba meets basic public health and education needs, there remain tremendous strains on resources and a lack of basic necessities including medicine, food and clothing. Even when resources may be available, many Cubans are priced out of the market. Cuba’s dual currency system severely complicates local purchasing power, and the average Cuban salary is the equivalent of only $20 U.S. dollars per month.

As B’nai B’rith International returns from its first mission of 2015, we reflect on the roots and impact of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project (CJRP). Indeed, B’nai B’rith International has a very large hand print in supporting the Cuba-Jewish community with longstanding ties to the island. The B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge even predates the 1959 revolution, having been founded in Havana in 1943.

Nearly 95 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled the revolution. Shortly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government issued a 1992 constitutional amendment that provided for non-discrimination based on religious belief. When B’nai B’rith began the CJRP in the early 1990s the Jewish community was just emerging from decades of struggle to preserve its traditions and culture. With the easing of restriction on religious practice, B’nai B’rith was one of the first humanitarian organizations on the ground to spearhead the bright revival of Jewish life in Cuba.

Since 1995, B’nai B’rith has been providing humanitarian relief and hands-on support to the Cuban-Jewish community, with an emphasis on delivering material aid, Judaica and other necessities while empowering community revitalization efforts. Through our missions, the CJRP affords B’nai B’rith members an opportunity to share in joint religious activities and discussion groups about religious practices and life on the island, all the while enjoying Cuba’s vibrant Caribbean culture. Mission participants have carried down thousands of pounds of religious material contributions to enhance the ability of the Jewish population in Cuba to practice their religion, as well as medicines and other basic necessities. Our first mission of 2015 brought more than 500 pounds of much needed effects.
With aid efforts ranging from the individual level to full community engagement, our legacy of humanitarian support focuses on three primary areas, with an aim toward self-sustainability: 

Preservation: Providing material aid and Judaica to meet the challenges of daily life for the Cuban Jewish population. 

Revitalization: Partnering with communities to support local initiatives. 

Sustainability: Connecting Cuban Jews to the greater Diaspora to strengthen global partnerships and empower future generations. 

This three-pronged approach enables us to focus our aid efforts where they are most needed, and with full cooperation and participation with our partners on the ground. It is precisely through our program’s deep roots in Cuba that we can ensure much-needed aid gets to the right places.

Renewed interest in the Caribbean island nation was spurred by President Barack Obama’s historic announcement of the “normalization” of relations between the United States and Cuba in December 2014.  Many question what lasting changes we can expect following President Obama’s announcement of an opening toward Cuba, particularly for the future of American-Jewish relations with the community on the island. While it is yet to be seen how the changes will unfold, many are quite optimistic. More American Jewish groups will certainly travel to Cuba, and with the easing of travel and commercial restrictions perhaps inject some life into Cuba’s dismal economy.

Despite high optimism, the needs on the ground for the tiny Jewish population remain unchanged. Cuba’s Jewish population still faces challenges on many fronts.  Today, B’nai B’rith continues our tradition of cooperation with the Cuban-Jewish community, contributing vital assistance to ensure that the needs of our brothers and sisters in Cuba are met.

Over the years B’nai B’rith has stitched many threads in the fabric of Jewish life in Cuba. The mystery, intrigue, and even more important sense of “Tikkun Olam” that has drawn American Jews to Cuba for decades has only grown more pronounced, and it is certain our vital work will continue.
December 2014 participants light Chanukah candles with members of the Sancti Spiritus Jewish community, Javaia, during our annual Chanukah Mission.
February 2015 participants mingle with students in the Creating Horizon’s project at the Sephardic Center (Havana).
December 2013 participant Cynthia Tivers of Los Angeles donates a Havdallah candle to David Tacher, leader of the Or Jadash synagogue (Santa Clara).
The Tzedakah box at Adath Israel (Havana).
Participants tour a Jewish facility in the Old City of Havana.
The façade of the Beth Shalom Synagogue (Havana).

Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
<![CDATA["Tight Rides in Cuba"]]>Wed, 23 Jan 2013 19:13:47 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/tight-rides-in-cubaby Charles Kaufman, senior vice president of B'nai B'rith International

The curious who’ve never visited Cuba want to know, “So how ‘bout those ‘50s cars?

By all accounts, there are tens of thousands of cars from the era of Elvis — Packards, Chevys, the Plymouth Belvedere, Cadillacs, the Pontiac Star Chief, Dodges, the Oldsmobile Rocket and Fords. Cuba reportedly was the largest importer per capita of Cadillacs during the 1950s, at the dawn of the Castro Revolution.
With appearances of Havana today mostly frozen in time from the 1950s, the classic cars are commonly found cruising areas popular with tourists are rest as heavy hunks of metal parked on the sides of narrow streets.
When the U.S. embargo was initiated in 1962 and Cubans could no longer import parts to repair the American classics the plight of the cars worsened. Some vehicles showed the rust of neglect. Many of them looked beaten up like Rocky Balboa after a 12-round fight. Today, many vintage cars remain are dulled by age and the Caribbean heat, while others are buffed and restored to appeal to tourists.

The Soviet Union's Ladas, Moskvitchs and Volgas remain prevalent on the streets. When the former Soviets unplugged from Cuba, however, the Yank Tanks gained new life. Owners with proper plates worked to restore them.

Let's remember, however, few people own cars here. Gasoline is in short supply for consumers and few people can afford a car and the costs associated with it. Suffice it to say, there’s little traffic throughout Cuba, even in Havana, a city of two million people. Most Cubans get to where they're going on foot, by over-crowded buses or vehicles that look like school buses.

Comfortable, air-conditioned tour buses carry loads of visitors from all over. As for those American Classics, some are privately operated taxis, permitted by Raul Castro as a form of free enterprise to boost the tourism trade. They are tricked out in the most garish of colors. Check out the rides here and, while you're at it, crank up the volume on “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry.
<![CDATA[Bob Kaufman (Wheeling, IL) Returns from a B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission]]>Thu, 17 Jan 2013 14:49:08 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/bob-kaufman-wheeling-il-returns-from-a-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-missionBob Kaufman
My wife, Rosalie, and I went on an eight day B'nai B'rith International mission to Cuba in early December. It was an amazing and enlightening trip to say the least. Our primary goal was to meet with the tiny Cuban-Jewish community and to provide them with medicine, personal clothing, comfort items, Chanukah and other religious items. The group brought 1,100 pounds of goods with us.

Cuba has a population of about 11 million. There are only an estimated 1,500 Jews left in Cuba, a far cry from the 15,000 in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. There are five synagogues on the island: three in Havana, one in Santiago and one in Guantanamo. Throughout our week in Cuba, we visited all five and met with their leaders and members.

From what we could see, there seems to be minimal anti-Semitism in Cuba and there is a memorial to the Holocaust in the center of Havana.  
I encourage you to consider joining a mission and see Cuba for yourself.

Bob Kaufman

<![CDATA[A mission of miracles: Visiting Cuba during Chanukah]]>Thu, 13 Dec 2012 16:10:17 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/a-mission-of-miracles-visiting-cuba-during-chanukahCuba Delegation
HAVANA DE CUBA—B’nai B’rith International's 2012 Mission to Cuba recently witnessed the miracle of its work during Chanukah, leaving behind a roomful of medicines, health supplies, clothing, household and religious items.
The group of 19 committed B’nai B’rith participants from 11 U.S. states and France experienced the remarkable efforts of Cuban Jews in Santiago de Cuba, Havana and, for the first time, Guantanamo de Cuba to maintain a Jewish existence in a country with a rich Jewish history.
“This year’s group and trip were terrific,” said Stuart Cooper of Livingston, N.J., who along with his wife, Karen, completed their eighth trip to Cuba. “Everyone learned and made a warm and wonderful connection with the Jewish communities from one end of the island to the other. They saw the contrasts of Jewish life from the small communities in the countryside to the larger populations and facilities of Havana. People who come on this mission get to see the direct impact on a scale that few Jewish organizations can deliver. It’s a phenomenal experience.”
B’nai B’rith International’s involvement as a mission dates back to 1995, though B’nai B’rith’s connection to Cuba dates back to a time when the world’s best-known Jewish organization helped German Jews get out of Cuba after World War II.
Today, B’nai B’rith provides meals for more than 150 people in Havana through the B’nai B’rith Cuba Maimonides Lodge. “We are also primary sponsors of a senior day care center at the Sephardic synagogue to give many of our senior brothers and sisters a place to spend their days with friends, participate in activities and receive the attention of professional care,” Cooper said.
Other specific mission contributions have involved providing a meat grinder so kosher hamburgers can be made at the kosher butcher that’s open one day a month and donating torahs to various communities.
The mission participants came away with additional ways to help:

> To provide in Guantanamo de Cuba a canvas that can be made into a retractable awning that would shade activity areas from an often blistering sun; and 25 outdoor chairs.
> School backpacks and supplies for Jewish school-aged children.
> Jewish learning resources in Spanish.
Donna Padnos of Raleigh, N.C., made her first visit to Cuba and said she was impressed by the determination and dedication of the different Jewish communities to maintain their Judaism. “From the elderly at the orthodox synagogue to the younger generations (a baby naming at Santiago and an upcoming bat mitzvah at Guantanamo) our brethren are very proud of their Jewish heritage and of being Cuban. They deserve our utmost support.”
Monique and Jean-Jacques Willard of Paris, France, other first-time visitors to the Caribbean island, came away moved and motivated. “Obviously, we knew nothing about Cuba,” they said. “We were very interested and impressed during our meetings with the Jewish communities. We feel they are courageous.”
For Gerrald Salomon and wife Brigitte, who moved to San Diego years ago from their native Colombia, the mission to Cuba was an emotional one. “I feel rachmanos (compassion). I don’t know how else to describe it,” Salomon said. “I tear up just thinking about how hard people here work to be Jewish and wonder what’s to become of the community. That’s how I feel.”
Cuba’s Jewish population is generously estimated at 1,500 these days with many remaining Jews coming from Turkey in the 1920s. Others are conversos, generally people who have discovered they had one Jewish parent. The Jewish population swelled after World War II. An exodus of European Jews from Cuba largely came to the United States before the Revolution in 1959 and in the early 1960s.
Anyone interested in participating in or contributing to the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project should contact Heather McWilliams at the B’nai B’rith office in Washington at (202) 857-6530 or HMcwilliams@bnaibrith.org.

- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman

<![CDATA[Day Six of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Tue, 11 Dec 2012 15:41:09 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/day-six-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012Cuba’s community blossoms as it evolves
HAVANA DE CUBA—Maritza Corrales is regularly identified as an expert on the history of Jews in Cuba, mostly on the strength of her 2005 book “The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba” (Salsedo Press, Chicago). She often accompanies Jewish missions to the nation’s largest cemetery near Havana. She also makes presentations about her research niche to visiting Jewish groups. She is available to other authors who examine Jewish history. It’s her academic interest and part of her livelihood.
She cites archives of Madrid that Conversos Jews were among mariners from Spain who first stepped on Cuban soil. The Spanish of the early 16th Century were seeking gold and when they found none they left the island. Jews escaping the inquisition stayed and by the time the British came to Cuba in 1898, a log reported more than 500 Spanish Jews in Cuba.
Corrales rattles off figures relating to the Jewish community today, data that is useful to the Patronato, which serves as the community center of Havana:

> There are 10 identified Jewish communities in Cuba;
> The Jewish population, often quoted as 1,500, is 1,237 (400 families), with 846 in Havana;
> 56 percent are women;
> 26 percent are older than 60;
> Most of the population are Sephardic, reflecting the departure of Ashkenazic Jews when Castro came to power. In 1959, at the time of the revolution, Cuba’s Jewish population was about 15,000.
Corrales acknowledges that Cuba is a “totally unreligious” nation and there are some crypto-Jews, people who practice Jewish customs without knowing their origin. Some are learning about such rituals and are identifying as Jews. While some Jews make aliyah, a process that actually takes a handful of years to accomplish, the community should remain in tact, she says. Other scholars acknowledge that the Jews of Cuba are a fascinating mix of religionists and adherents to the current political structure in Cuba.
“If Jews have survived storms, the Inquisition and Hitler, they will survive here,” Corrales said.

The Patronato is composed of the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba and Templo Beth Shalom, the center and now a conservative synagogue. It was formerly Orthodox, in addition to a voluminous synagogue, the Patronato offers indoor recreational facilities, an extensive a Jewish library as exists in Cuba and a pharmacy.
Adela Dworin is the president of the Patronato. She welcomes groups virtually every week and isn’t afraid to ask for contributions that supplement those from the Joint Distribution Committee. “We need money. That’s the most important thing,” she tells visitors, “but we need more Jews.”
Dworin acknowledges the growth of the Sunday school, including a breakfast program, daily services for seniors, increases to more than 70 people for Friday night services and well attended festivities for Chanukah and Purim events. It’s proud that 45 junior athletes are planning to participate in the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel.  .
The Patronato also helps the elderly find housing with other Jewish families. It is flowering today in contrast to the 1980s, when the Patronato could barely attract a minyan and many Jews in Cuba practiced their faith privately in their homes.
Dworin has been president of the Jewish community for a long time and is proud of its achievements.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
<![CDATA[Day Five of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Mon, 10 Dec 2012 15:26:21 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/day-five-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012Through a Cuban Prism: a Kosher Butcher in Havana
HAVANA DE CUBA—A group of French Jews recently purchased a van for use by the Adath Israel synagogue, the only Orthodox congregation in Cuba. Transportation is a luxury in Cuba and carries an expense, but its value is inestimable.
“It’s the only way we can assure having a daily minyan,” said Yakob Berezniak Hernandez, young and thickly bearded.

Hernandez is a fixture in the Jewish community. He is the synagogue’s cantor, burial committee, treasurer, shochet and mohel. His shochet license hangs on the wall of the small kosher butcher that is situated several blocks away from the shul. He became certified in 2009, when he spent four months in Haifa studying kashrut.
Like other Cubans, Jews receive an allotment of meat under Cuba’s rationing system. Hernandez manages the kosher kills and processing. The meat is available to a select group of Jews once a month. B’nai B’rith mission participants sit in the downstairs chapel and listen to Hernandez discuss the problematic lives of his community.
The B’nai B’rith members pass through a multipurpose room that provides seniors with kosher meals and makes available for roughly $10 apiece blue and white kipot that have been stitched with menorahs and Israeli and Cuban flags. They are popular with the B’nai B’rith visitors, as they are with other visitors, and a good way to raise funds for the synagogue. The mission participants take advantage of this opportunity and, separately, feed the tzedakah box.
The currency in Cuba for foreigners is a CUC, a Cuban convertible peso, one of two official currencies in Cuba. Local Cubans operate with their own peso. The price tag for each kipot represents a little less than a monthly income for many Cubans. Physicians here, for example, earn about $50 a month. People do find ways to supplement their income but such extras are taxed highly by the Cuban government, explains our guide, who adds as an aside that Cuban Olympic gold medalists are regarded heroes of the nation and the revolution and earn $150 a month …. for life.
Upstairs, the history of Adath Israel and the tremendous support is in full evidence. The large synagogue with its balcony, even by American standards, is at once an artistic treasure. Hernandez said the Orthodox community numbers maybe 300.
He’s asked, so why do you need such a huge sanctuary? “The cost to modify it or tear it down and start over would be so great it’s better just to keep the space,” Hernandez says.
Before the revolution, the Jewish community in Cuba numbered up to 25,000, with Havana representing the lion’s share of that figure. The space was needed then. More than 90 percent of the community left with the revolution. Another wave of Jews left when the Soviets arrived decades later and placed prohibitions on the public practice of religion. When the Soviets left in the ‘90s, the Jewish community experienced a revival. And here we are….
During the B’nai B’rith visit to Adath Israel, the mechitzah (for separate seating) is decorated for Chanukah. The synagogue also uses significant space in the main sanctuary to display historic documents under glass cases.
Back to the kosher butcher. Hernandez said a few Jews make kosher meat a part of following the dietary laws, though other Jewish leaders here suggest about 20 people “keep kosher.” During the day of the B’nai B’rith mission visits, not one morsel of meat is visible. A couple of racks of large S-curve hooks normally would be used to move sides of beef.  Today, they are perfectly clean and hang on the racks. Hernandez stands behind an empty counter and in front of an open freezer locker.  It’s a remarkable remnant of Cuban Jewish life, past and present.

- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
<![CDATA[Day Four of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Sun, 09 Dec 2012 16:28:22 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/day-four-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012A B’nai B’rith Mission First: A Visit to Guantanamo de Cuba
GUANTANAMO DE CUBA—B’nai B’rith made its first trip to the eastern-most Jewish community in this country. Beyond that milestone, this proud Sephardic synagogue recently identified two Jews living 70 miles away, and young Jennifer is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah, the first local to have a bat mitzvah outside Havana.
Jennifer and many Jews in this community are part of the Mizrahi clan. Rodolfo Mizrahi is the head of the community and lives in space below the second floor synagogue. The Mizrahis came to Guantanamo, like the Jews of nearby Santiago, several generations ago from Turkey.
The B’nai B’rith mission participants pull up to awaiting congregants and immediately see the Turkish influences in the synagogue’s exterior design. The deep aquamarine walls contrast the structures on the rest of the street. Spiraling columns and other features decorate the synagogue edifice. The space, long and deep, is divided into two large spaces. One half serves as a sanctuary and indoor uses; the other half is used for outdoor celebrations.
The outdoor space, already outfitted for a sukkah, could use a canvas covering to shield the space from year-round searing heat, particularly during the summer. Such an awning would be installed to retract. Twenty-five needed outdoor chairs would facilitate various outdoor holiday observances and celebrations.
A tall, young man leads Shabbat services. His familiar renditions sound as if Bob Dylan is singing them. Really. Asked what he does in Guantanamo, the young man says he plays volleyball. He is about 6-3 and is built like a power forward.
The synagogue knows the work and contributions of B’nai B’rith. In a PowerPoint following services, Rodolfo is shown in one of the clips wearing a B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge T-shirt. And on one wall, the synagogue proudly displays a framed 2009 resolution signed by then-B’nai B’rith International President Moishe Smith.
This community counts more than 80 Jews as congregants, though quite a few people live miles away and some live even farther, such as the two newly-identified Jews living 70 miles away. Rodolfo would love to have Jewish learning tools in Spanish. The community generously received a Torah from a past B’nai B’rith mission participant, Mark Fleischer, but the synagogue has no one to read it. On this Shabbat, however, the Torah is not only taken out of the ark, but Rodolfo receives an aliyah. Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn on the mission reads the corresponding parsha.
The B’nai B’rith mission and individuals leave behind contributions following a filling lunch and take home a wish list of gift ideas. After all, it’s Chanukah.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
<![CDATA[Day Three of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Sat, 08 Dec 2012 19:50:55 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/day-three-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012The Sefardi Center: Home of B’nai B’rith Cuba
HAVANA DE CUBA—Over the years B’nai B’rith has stitched many threads in the fabric of Jewish life in Cuba. Perhaps the most material impact currently is at the Centro Hebreo Sefardi. It is the base for the Maimonides B’nai B’rith Lodge with more than 125 affiliates.
The center is where B’nai B’rith sponsors daily meals for more than 150 seniors. It also is the beneficiary of a significant amount of mission aid and donations—medicines, health supplies, clothing, Judaica and other items.
Dr. Mayra Levy, a retired physician, author and professor, serves as the center’s president. Simon, Ida and Sammy also are officers and pivotal players in the daily operations of the Sephardi Center.
Mayra even makes periodic trips to United States communities to raise awareness and support. She and her team joined the B’nai B’rith Mission to celebrate the second night of Chanukah, describe services at the center and answer questions. It’s evening, the end of a busy travel day for the B’nai B’rith Mission participants, and further discussion will take place during a return visit in a couple of days.
That day arrives and Mission participants witness the center in full operation. An exercise class and weight lifters have the space in full motion. Workers are preparing lunch in a dining area for seniors. Arts and crafts teachers are assisting seniors on various projects that are available for sale.
The space has many purposes. It is the sanctuary during the high holidays and other occasions and, actually, during the coming week will be filled with celebration as Rabino Samuel Szteinhendler, who is based in Santiago, Chile, will officiate at seven weddings simultaneously. Rabbi Szteinhendler has shepherded the Cuban community for the better part of two decades and is a long-time friend of B’nai B’rith.

A Permanent Holocaust Display
Mayra guides the Mission through a new source of pride at the Centro, a permanent Holocaust display, “The Holocaust and the Creation of a Living Community,” which examines conditions in Europe that forced 11,000 Jews to seek refuge in Cuba between 1933 and 1942. It was funded anonymously and installed in December 2011 with the support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and the Jewish Cuba Connection headed by Stanley Falkenstein. Falkenstein serves on the board of B’nai B’rith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project.
ORT, the organization that has worked decades with Cuban Jewry as well, involved Cuban students in videotaping community members’ stories about the plight of the SS St. Louis in 1939, in which 930 Jewish refugees from Germany were disallowed from disembarking, though a small number were allowed to land. Most of the refugees ended up back in Europe after also being rejected by the United States and Canada. More than 250 on the Voyage of the Damned perished in the Holocaust. Posters telling the story are for sale for 5 CUCs (almost $6). Visitors buy them to endorse the exhibit and support the Center.

The Menorah Glows in a Warm Chapel
The center chapel is beautifully appointed, warm and comfortable, reflecting a time before the revolution and the contributions of B’nai B’rith, the Joint Distribution Committee and a growing number of visitors from throughout the world.
The leaders of the Cuban Jewish community appreciate visitors from all over the Diaspora as the State Department approves more visas from many religious and educational groups. The Cuban leaders say groups bring medicines, aid and donations, but on a much smaller scale than B’nai B’rith and the Joint Distribution Committee, among other large organizations. “Most people come here to learn about our community and absorb life here,” one leader says. “We appreciate all contributions, but they are different from sustaining gifts.”
B’nai B’rith provides sustaining gifts in its Tzedakah Project and the B’nai B’rith Mission has the advantage of the international organization’s relationships in the various Jewish communities. It understands Cuba’s unique needs. Finally, it has the experience of handling the logistics in producing many such trips for almost two decades.
Anyone interested in participating in or contributing to the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project should contact Heather McWilliams at the B’nai B’rith office in Washington at (202) 857-6530 or HMcwilliams@bnaibrith.org.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
<![CDATA[Day Two of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Fri, 07 Dec 2012 16:07:53 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/day-two-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012B'nai B'rith Cuba Mission:  Honoring Life, Respecting the Dead

GUANABACOA DE CUBA—Two Jewish cemeteries are located in this town located about 30 minutes outside Havana. One is a Sephardic cemetery. The other is the Centro Macabeo Cemetery. The latter was visited by the 2012 B’nai B’rith mission.

It was established in 1906 by the United Hebrew Congregation of Cuba (UHC). It has about 1,000 graves with many tombstones damaged and even dislocated from their frames. The names in the cemetery are German. The Centro Macabeo is the Spanish part of the UHC. The UHC disappeared after the revolution in 1959.

The B’nai B’rith mission participants were touched in different ways from this experience, placing stones on the marble-covered plots, as is the tradition, at the gravesites. A few well-tanned cemetery caretakers provided kippot for the male visitors and gave an overview of the cemetery. They also made available a ledger-looking log that recorded names and locations of the deceased.

Every grave, of course, appears to have a story to share, and there are more than 1,000 graves here. One grave shows the image of a soldier. Another memorial celebrates the participation as proud Communists. Yet another indicates the headstone of a child who died after two days of life. Another was four months old. A group from Chicago renovated a long row of small graves, all children. They are small and have a fresh coat of white paint with black Hebrew lettering.

A Tzedakah box near the entrance is most inviting to passing visitors. One plot indicates the site of someone’s future resting place.

Several B’nai B’rith mission participants looked for known relatives or simply their own German surnames. Bob Kaufman of the Chicago area and Chuck Kaufman of Austin, Texas, not related beyond their relationship to B’nai B’rith International, are curious whether any Kaufmans—it’s German—are buried here. Neither have roots in Cuba.

“Hay nombre Kaufman in el libro?” Chuck asks. The caretaker turns back and forth in the large ledger and, lo and behold, he finds two, Abraham and Faiga Kaufman, who died in the 1950s before the revolution. The B’nai B’rith Kaufmans follow the caretaker to a corner of the cemetery that’s shaded. Unlike some of the graves, the physical grave itself is in good shape. The large black granite headstone surrounded by finely-grained marble covers the width of both Abraham’s and Faiga’s graves. It is large. Perhaps this was a prominent couple. It bears metal, block letters “  U F M A N.”

“Puede encontrar las letras para fijar el nombre?”
“Si, si.”

Chuck and Bob learn how much the repair will cost. It’s inexpensive. Done. Other digits are missing and one wonders how much more the repair will cost. “Nada, senor. El trabajo encluye en el precio; es por todo.”

An additional contribution buys a promise that everything will be repaired and overgrown grass will be cut.

“We make look nice.”
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman
<![CDATA[First Night of the B'nai B'rith Cuba Jewish Relief Mission - Dec. 2012]]>Thu, 06 Dec 2012 16:33:53 GMThttp://www.bnaibrith.org/cuba-blog/first-night-of-the-bnai-brith-cuba-jewish-relief-mission-dec-2012Real olive oil makes light everlasting
SANTIAGO DE CUBA—The streets are narrow and the lights are dim in this residential area of one of Cuba’s oldest cities.  Light that emanates from a Turkish façade reveals a royal blue and white exterior with tall windows and decorative wrought-iron covering.
This is the first stop for the B’nai B’rith Mission to Cuba, a synagogue established in 1939 by Turkish Jews, about 15 years after they arrived in the country. A portion of the few dozen Jews who remain in this area pour out of the doorway to greet their visitors.
Emma Levy is the Hatikvah community’s leader and after everyone is inside she welcomes the B’nai B’rith family. The Shabbat candles are lit and the greetings begin.
Photographs of Israel line the wall on the right. Chanukah decorations cover the opposite wall. At the back of the room is an area set up for services. Two steps lead to the bimah and a wooden, velvet-curtain-covered ark holds a new Sephardic torah. The bimah above the seating area gives the space its holy atmosphere. The sanctuary is impressive in its simplicity. Emma boasts that their ner tamid is the only one in Cuba that burns real olive oil.
Friday night services in Santiago include some recognizable tunes with a bit of a Caribbean flair, notably Lecha Dodi. Participation is high, the singing is energetic. Judaism fills the room and everyone’s hearts.
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Kansas City, Mo., delivers a sermon about Jacob’s dreams—sueños—and talks about the meaning of dreams, a concept that especially captivates the Cuban congregants. One congregant who traces her lineage four generations from Turkey has dreams of visiting Israel. A universal prayer book that contains prayers in Hebrew and transliterations, along with readings in Spanish guides the leaders.
After services, tables are placed in the back of the long room close to the entrance. Shabbat dinner is about to be served. The B’nai B’rith guests are about to be exposed to legendary Cuban cuisine of rice and black beans, plus salad and fish, topped off with pints of wonderful ice cream.
The mission participants learn that the small community contains a few physicians while others work in such areas as software sales. Young mothers and small children are part of the regular Friday night celebration.
Stuart Cooper, trip leader and chair of the Cuban Project, leaves behind several big bags of needed items for the community. It’s then time to bid farewell. The Mission also leaves behind support to cover the night’s Shabbat dinner and more.
Our hosts take favorite positions on the steps outside and wave as the bus departs. It’s dark out and the B’nai B’rith mission leaves its Santiago family in the shadow of light emanating from the interior of the synagogue.
The effort and desire to be Jewish ritually, socially and culturally is impressive. The Sabbath Queen gets welcomed in a wonderful way.
- by B'nai B'rith International Senior Vice President Charles Kaufman