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