FINAL REFLECTIONS BY TRIP PARTICIPANT JOAN TEDLOW
First of all, I’d like to thank Temple Solel for offering us the opportunity to learn about the Jewish community of Cuba, as well as gain valuable insights into the political system of the island. I learned so much on the trip; my admiration for the resiliency of the Cuban Jews knows no bounds. And, surprisingly, my thoughts on the Revolution were changed one hundred eights degrees by what we saw and heard.
It is impossible for me to think of the plight of the approximately 1,500 Jews remaining in Cuba without feeling teary. For 35 years - from the Revolution in 1959 until the mid 1990’s – they clung to Judaism against all odds, despite extensive intermarriage and lack of educational opportunities. You’ll remember that Castro outlawed the practice of any religion because “Religion is the opiate of the people.” - Karl Marx. The few courageous Jews who stayed in Cuba after the Revolution could have been the lost generation. Instead, they chose to preserve their heritage even though their rabbis and teachers fled the island when Castro nationalized businesses. They remained true to their Judaism as best they could.
Now that religious restrictions have been lifted for some years, Cuban Jewry is enjoying a modest revival. The older generation remains uneducated Judaically, but they are relying on their children to be their teachers. Many are sending their sons and daughters on the March of the Living and the Birthright program. Some of the teens who come back from visiting Israel seem quite committed to keeping their community alive. We met with one such young man, who helped lead services at the Conservative synagogue.
Today, there are three functioning synagogues in Havana, which we toured. We also attended Erev Shabbat services at the Conservative Synagogue, where we prayed to “El Senor” and were hosted to dinner.
We learned that the community gets together and brings a rabbi in from Argentina every few years to conduct conversions. In fact, they told us that young and old alike choose to be circumcised en masse at a local hospital several years ago. These remaining Cuba Jews are fiercely devoted to Judaism.
We had a chance to get out into the country to Cienfuegos, where we met Rebecca Langus Rodriguez, the president of the Jewish community, in her modest home. Rebecca leads services in her living room, surrounded by menorahs, Kiddush cups, seder plates and other ritual objects, plus lots and lots of books. She has no Torah; she doesn’t read Hebrew; she is intermarried and yet she is passionate about her mission to hold the Jewish community of Cienfuegos (about 20 people) together. She is proud that her older son is participating in March of the Living this year. It is impossible not to be moved by such dedication. Rabbi Brown conducted a brief Yom Hashoah service in Rebecca’s home. It was evident that she was very touched.
The other strong impression I took away from Cuba is an about-face about the Revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevera. These ideologues toppled Batista, (who was supported by the US and plundered Cuba, along with American mobster Meyer Lansky, a Jew, by the way) I came to understand why a radical change of government was so desperately needed. Although I may not agree with their choice of political systems, I recognize that there had to be change.
I realize that Cuba is a totalitarian state, where individual freedoms are severely restricted, particularly the freedom to travel. The average Cuban is not free to leave the country, unless he/she is Jewish and visiting/returning to Israel. Israel is recognized by Castro as the Jewish homeland. The other way out is by proving Spanish ancestry, which confers Spanish citizenship, so that a person may go to Spain and use that country as a springboard to settle elsewhere. Of course, even if they could travel, few have the means to do so.
Food is rationed and seems to be in short supply. Choices in a state-run restaurant are limited, although there seemed to be a more varied selection in paladares, private restaurants sanctioned by the government. Access to the internet is limited to twenty-four hours/month. There is no such thing as freedom of the press. And, people are very careful not to criticize the government. In fact, our guide told us to keep all emails to him on a “friendship” level.
Despite these difficult restrictions, I came to admire the fact that Castro instituted universal education, free through college. School is mandatory until the age of 14 and those who qualify and wish to may attend college at no cost. This policy has raised the literacy rate in Cuba to over 98% (figures vary) in a little over fifty years. Unemployment is around 2%, although there is a degree of underemployment. For instance, because there is a surfeit of doctors, medical personnel may be forced to work in other fields. And, given the poor economic situation in the country since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which supported Cuba, many people have to work at more than one job to feed their families. I’m reminded of a line in a DVD we watched about Luis Tiant, the former baseball player, who visited his remaining relatives in Cuba in 2007. His elderly aunt told him that the family was living on cigarettes. I took this to mean that they survive by selling them on the black market. The Cubans we met are also very dependent on donations from religious institutions and gifts from family members living in Miami.
The Revolution brought free universal medical care to Cuba. Yes, the delivery system is not perfect. Hospitals have to deal with power blackouts and pharmacies are not well-stocked. But, at least there is a sense of social justice that recognizes a person’s right to health care. This was particularly evident at the high risk pregnancy clinic we visited. Women with health issues and those anticipating multiple births are housed at the clinic free for the duration of their pregnancy. We were told that these clinics exist throughout the island.
The Cuban people we met were warm, grateful for our help and anxious to talk with us, although language was frequently a barrier. They are creative and very resourceful (necessity being the mother of invention!) They have devised myriad ways to get around the system. They work long and hard to provide for their families. And, they love their island. How privileged we were to be able to meet with them!!