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Matthew Caplan

I’ve never been able to quite understand my Jewish identity. After all, I live in America, where many of my ancestors, in pursuit of benefits I now reap, assimilated into secular society. While no fault of their own, they have set in motion a decision that some say has slowly eroded the tenets of Jewish tradition for my generation. A transition has seemingly followed, forcing Jewish communal organizations to find new ways to engage an impatient youth drawn to immediate gratification and satisfaction — something antiquated religious practice does not seem fit to provide.

Such a haunting prospect has sent the Jewish world scrambling. Exemplifying these concerns, former World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman voiced one final rallying cry to the Jewish people just before he died. If Jewish peoplehood is to continue as it has for thousands of years, we must build and strengthen the everlasting bonds between not only Jews across ages, but also Jews across borders.

B’nai B’rith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project answers this call and then some.

The trip was as much time travel to a bygone era as a humanitarian mission to assist a community stricken with the trials of a collapsing economy, and a government unable to keep pace with the demands of population growth, globalization and modernity. A glance in any direction produced the blur of a flaming red 1958 Cadillac straight out of Philip Roth’s pastoral America.

Yet, the time travel exposed something even more poignant: an infantile Jewish community birthing from its own ashes. Following Castro’s 1959 revolution, Jewish identity effectively ceased to exist. Those who were able fled to Israel or America. Those who remained were stymied by the fear of punitive action against religious expression. Only until such restrictions were eased in the 1990s was the community— some descendants of Holocaust survivors, some survivors themselves — able to freely return to Torah. Slowly, they did, and slowly, they still are. Led by a charismatic cadre of young Jews, five synagogues provide a haven for unity and Jewish programming, of which B’nai B’rith has been instrumental, and even offers Holocaust education to a Cuban population unaware of the details. The Jewish community, though, is not immune to the nation’s broader economic woes, and many Cuban Jews struggle to find meals and other necessities.

Perhaps most fitting then was our trip’s final day. Following a week of delivering food, medication and other supplies to a community that so desperately needs it, we celebrated Havdalah with the same Cuban Jews who are so instrumental to the community’s sustenance. Amidst prayer, song and gentle conversation, an intertwined Havdalah candle became an apropos metaphor to our realization that no matter what, Jews across all ages and borders are there in support of each other.

As the flame danced, Bronfman’s call was answered. B’nai B’rith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project is doing truly transformational work, not only in maintaining a storied tradition and community, but also in engaging a future generation of Jewishness.

Matthew Caplan, who is also active with our friend and partner organization Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), has traveled with B’nai B’rith International before, including on a 2013 mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Caplan is a native of Pittsburgh. He’s a 2016 graduate of Georgetown University.