By Sam Seifman
President Obama’s surprise announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations after five decades resonated among Jews here and in Cuba, where political prisoner Alan Gross had been held for more than five years.
Gross, arrested in 2009 while trying to set up internet connections for the Cuban Jewish community, had once been active in BBYO (formerly the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and formerly associated with B’nai B’rith), and his sister-in-law, Gwen Zuares, serves on the B’nai B’rith Executive Board of Directors.
As part of the agreement, Gross was released from prison and returned to the United States. While the U.S. government newly works to restore relations between the two countries, B’nai B’rith International has had a presence on the Island for more than 70 years. The B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge started in Havana on May 17, 1943.
The lodge was started by Milton Savitch, a member of B’nai B’rith Switzerland, and 31 members of the Cuban community. Founded immediately after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis, the Cuban lodge was intended to be a spiritual center and an organization that helped Jews escape from persecution and death in Europe.
But the lodge also shared many of the classic B’nai B’rith goals.
They were “to link the purest principles of charity, honor and patriotism, to support the arts and sciences, to alleviate the needs of the poor, to visit and tend to the sick, to protect and assist widows and orphans,” said B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge’s current president, Samuel Zagovlov.
Today, the lodge has 100 members and continues its charitable work. In 2002, it started the Tzedakah Project in conjunction with the Cuban Jewish Relief Committee. The project provides financial assistance to 120 elderly Cuban Jews in need.
“When a person starts receiving the benefits of this project, they are advised that this should not be taken as an act of charity,” Zagavlov said. “This is an act of Tzedakah, which means ‘justice’ in Hebrew.”
The lodge also has an emergency fund that provides interest-free loans to needy families. These loans are backed by B’nai B’rith and other fraternal organizations, such as the Jewish Cuba Connection and the Cuban American Jewish Mission, both based in California.
The lodge, which meets bimonthly, provides a place for members to discuss Jewish cultural issues, Cuban national matters and international affairs.
B’nai B’rith has been leading missions to Cuba for 20 years. Its work in Cuba is based on a three-fold approach: to- preserve Jewish heritage by providing material aid and Judaica, to revitalize the area by joining with communities to support local initiatives, and, connecting Cuban Jews to the greater Diaspora to strengthen global partnerships and empower future generations.
“The contributions made by the Maimonides Lodge have had an incredible impact on the Cuban-Jewish community, an impact that is strongly felt with each visiting mission,” said Sienna Girgenti, B’nai B’rith assistant director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and coordinator of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project. “B’nai B’rith International is proud of our deeply meaningful efforts in Cuba. Our vital work will continue with five missions planned to the country in 2015.”
B’nai B’rith staff and other participants bring much-need medical supplies, prayer books and other religious materials to people in need. After each trip, participants report back to B’nai B’rith on other problems that may need to be addressed on future missions. Not only do the missions help Cuba’s underprivileged but they help strengthen the bond between the American-Jewish and Cuban-Jewish communities.
For more information about the Cuban Jewish Relief Project, visit bnaibrith.org/cuba-missions