The co-Founder CHAI Missions, Inc, Randi Simenhoff has worked and volunteered with Jewish organizations and secular non-profits, led social action groups to the gulf to help repair homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and traveled extensively and studied in Israel. Nothing excites Simenhoff more than engaging groups to visit and help the Cuban Jewish community. Contact Simenhoff at Chaimissions@gmail.com or visit www.chaimissions.org for more information.
Jews in Cuba? Seriously? My travel partner, Rhonda Slater, and I ventured down to the colorful island country that has been politically kept at arms length, to meet the Jewish community. As we anticipated, the Cuban architecture, antique cars and sites were magnificent, the music exhilarating; but what ultimately drew us in was the people.
Walking through the scrolled gates of Havana’s main synagogue, El Patronato, we felt an immediate connection. As we milled around the temple lobby looking at artifacts, books and photographs, a member of the Jewish community approached us. In tentative English he thanked Rhonda and me “for not forgetting about us,” the Cuban Jew. It was at that moment we made a commitment to bring our communities together, inspiring us to found CHAI Missions, a non-profit Jewish organization dedicated to helping Jewish communities in need worldwide, with immediate focus on Cuba.
Bidding adios to the gentleman, we then met with Adela, president of the shul, as she shared the plight of Cuban daily life: Regardless of profession, everyone earns an average of $18 per month. Cubans use different currency than do tourists. The locals’ ‘Old Cuban Peso’ helps make goods more affordable, yet supplies remain scarce. Items we take for granted such as bandages, antibiotics, diapers and eyeglasses are luxuries for Cubans.
Until the Revolution commenced in the 1950’s, there was a thriving Jewish population; many synagogues and kosher butchers. The following years curtailed civil rights, which included banning religious practice for all. Prior to the mass exodus during this period, Jewish numbers hovered around 15,000. With the ban on religious practice recently lifted, the 1,500 remaining Jews are presently in a revival mode.
She went on to tell us that security guards and locked doors, commonplace for American synagogues, are unnecessary as anti-Semitism is virtually absent in Cuba.
The Havana Jewish communities work as a team. Whereas El Patronato offers weekly Hebrew School, the nearby Sephardic temple, Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, houses a Senior Daycare Center and displays an illustrative Shoah Memorial. Mayra, retired physician and president of the latter, welcomed us into the sanctuary. She spoke further about the Jewish community. It was unusually hot despite the shul’s cool mint green walls, and fanning ourselves was for naught. We later discovered an irreparable broken air conditioning unit was the culprit behind the stifling heat. Note to self: “Find out what we can do to help.”
Both synagogues house pharmacies open to Jews and non-Jews alike. Following Mayra’s brief presentation, we asked her to show us the pharmacy, curious how a religious institution could run such a venture. Under a ceiling of peeling acoustic tiles, unfinished wooden shelves held an assortment of medications and hygiene items. Unfortunately, there was more bare space than provisions. In her typically complacent manner she told us, “We have everything we need in a ‘Cuban way.’” The medications and supplies we brought to donate would help stock the shelves. Further, we are excited that next month our mission participants’ tzedakah donations will fund a new air conditioning unit!
The birthright program has been bringing Cuban teens to Israel, helping them connect with their Jewish roots, learn to daven and expand Judaic knowledge. Although no rabbi presently lives in Cuba, ‘birthright alumni’ lead Shabbat services, which are then followed by dinner sponsored and shared by we Jewish mission participants.
Just outside Havana we paid our respects at a Jewish cemetery, unfortunately in a dilapidated state; its tombstones cracked and leaning. It is also home to the first Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere. We learned that 40 bars of soap made from human body remains were found in Germany shortly after the war, then brought here to be given a proper burial. An imposing memorial inscribed in both Hebrew and Spanish marks the place of interment. After Ann S., a mission participant and Holocaust survivor, shared a chilling memory about the soap, we joined arms around her and recited kaddish.
Brenda S., another participant, brought a list of family members buried in this very cemetery. Her parents had fled to the United States while pregnant with her. Our group fanned out on the jagged stone paths locating each of her family’s tombstones. The emotions we shared that day were both spontaneous and palpable.
Traveling further east, weaving amongst horse and buggies, we arrived in Cienfuegos. The few Jews living there meet regularly in the family home of Rebecca, community president. The beautiful Judaic floor tiles and ornate menorahs generate a holy ambiance. She shared anecdotes, trials and tribulations of this very small Jewish community. We also met Rebecca’s son, Daniel, graduate of a top Cuban art school. Daniel invited us to the neighborhood gallery, which hangs his paintings as well as other local artists. We were pleased to find this hidden gem of outstanding Jewish and secular works of art for sale in a country saturated with artists.
Life is poor in Cuba, but they lead rich lives. Family and synagogue community are extremely important. Cuba is abundant in color and flavor, but it’s the people that make the small island country vibrant.
Though a mere hour’s flight from Miami, most tourists are Canadian, South American or European. They need us. We must let them know we, the American Jewish community, have not forgotten them. On Jewish Missions to Cuba, we not only provide provocative itineraries with articulate guides specialized in Jewish heritage, we bring urgently needed items such as antibiotics, diabetic, asthmatic and blood pressure medications, school supplies, Judaica items and clothing to donate. We also bring tzedakah to fill in anything we’ve missed. But equally important, with our camaraderie, we will create a lifelong bridge uniting our communities. An extraordinary week filled with tears from sorrow and laughter and newly discovered friends help our Cuban brothers and sisters: one Chai Mission at a time.