Welcome! You've made it to the homepage of Temple Solel's 2010 mission to Cuba. From here you will be able to follow our progress as our group of 15 spends time in Havana, and beyond.

A special word of thanks to the many generous members of the Temple Solel community, who lovingly donated much-needed supplies and money that will go to directly support Cuban Jews and non-Jews alike who are in need - many of whom we will have the privilege of meeting during our trip.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Final Reflections by Trip Participants


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!!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Final Reflections by Rabbi Brown

It hasn't even been 48 hours since our departure from Havana, but here are a few reflections about our visit:

Regarding the Jewish community there...There are some interesting similarities between the state of Jewish life in Cuba today and that of Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe.  To varying degrees, both communities had once-thriving centers of Jewish life, followed by the sudden decrease of a vast majority of the local Jewish population, followed by several decades of virtually no organized Jewish life.  Today, in both central/Eastern Europe, and in Cuba, self-identifying Jews get to make a remarkable choice: do they accept the helping hand of the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel and continue to embrace their Jewish identity by making aliyah?  Or, do they choose to stay in Europe/Cuba and re-build Jewish life from the remnants, with the help of an organization like the Joint?

Cuban Jews today are making both choices.  In all of our stops, we were impressed by the repeated references that communal leaders made to programs like Birthright and the March of the Living.  These communally funded trips to Israel provide a pathway for young people who are considering aliyah.  The Jewish impulse to build the Jewish state, combined with the desire on the part of some to pursue a better life for themselves abroad, is leading some young people to aliyah.  (Many of the communal leaders that we met had a child living in Israel.)

Nonetheless, the side of Jewish life in Cuba that we witnessed firsthand was represented by those Jews who have made the remarkable and inspiring decision to stay - to stay and re-build, insuring that Jewish life can continue to thrive on the Island, as it once did several decades ago.

The decision to stay and build is so inspiring because they are doing so much with so little.  When I think of the kind of resources that our community at Temple Solel enjoys, I marvel at what these smaller communities are able to do with so much less.  What they lack in actual dollars they make up for in courage and creativity.


Another Jewish reflection from the trip: I kept returning to the notion that it was only by the accident of history and fate that my great-grandparents landed in New York City from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.  History teaches us that it could have just as easily been that their passage might have been re-directed to Havana....and the rest of the history of my family would have been forever changed.

So, of course it's a chance for me to feel some humility, and gratitude, for having been born into the life I was born into.

But, for me, the greater learning from this reflection is not how different Cuban Jews are from us - but how similar they are....specifically, in this case, referring to our common origins.

We often quote the teaching from the Talmud that "all Jews are responsible one for the other."  It's at the core of Jewish social ethics.  But why are we all responsible for each other?  I think that it's hard, in this day and age, to remember that we Jews really are all part of one giant family.  My trip to Cuba helped to remind me of this essential lesson.


What to say about our visit to Cuba in general? 

It wasn't the totalitarian state that I expected.  There weren't armed guards on every corner.  Who knows - maybe this blog was monitored, and maybe my phone calls were being listened to?  But I certainly didn't feel it during the visit.

The political propaganda was a problem.  Castro says that he is opposed to the cult of personality that is associated with someone like Stalin.  But the reality is that Castro's face is plastered on practically every billboard in the country.  And the rest of the leaders of the Revolution (Che, Camilo, Raul) all have their own iconagraphy plastered on the sides of buildings and monuments throughout the country.

What about the question of poverty?

Frankly, we didn't see it as much as I expected.

For a country where the average citizen supposedly is paid (officially anyway) only about $15/month, starvation/hunger wasn't something that we witnessed directly.  There weren't even as many beggars as we expected.

But it's impossible to know if the Cubans that we came into contact with represented the average or not.  (The Jews we met are supported by groups like our's as well as international Jewish orgs.  And the Cubans that we met in tourist related places are supposedly better paid than the average Cuban.)

You know...on one of our bus trips, Jorge brought a DVD documentary along: "The Lost Son of Havana" - the story of Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, and his return to Cuba after being away for decades. It's an excellent film.  I highly recommend it.

At the very end of the film, as he is preparing to return to the US, his relatives finally break down in front of him, and admit that they are suffering from terrible, terrible poverty.  One whispers to him: "We are surviving day to day on cigarettes."  (The ration system that is in place to make sure that a minimal amount of food is available to every Cuban does not nearly meet people's basic needs.)

Tiant is overwhelmed by their vulnerability, and assures that family that he will do what he can to financially assist them, even after he leaves.

That scene, filmed only two or three years ago, really made an impact on me.  Surviving day to day on cigarettes.  That is, frankly, the kind of poverty that I was expecting to see during the trip.

We didn't, really.

And I'm not sure if that's because it really isn't that bad.  Or if it's because our itinerary never really took us beyond what the government would prefer that we see.


One final reflection: I found Cuba to similar to Israel in a number of ways.  There's the geography - with the stunning coastlines.  And the architecture.  Although Cuba doesn't have any Jerusalem stone (!), it should be pointed out that the urban cores of West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Havana were all doing significant building in the 1920s and 1930s.  Okay...I'm not an expert.  But it seemed clear to me that all three cities seemed to be drawing on similar European influences for the architecture.  (Another significant difference: since the Revolution, Cuba's building upkeep has plummeted, resulting in these stunning buildings that have been terribly tarnished.  Very sad and depressing.)

A more important similarity that Israel and Cuba shares: it seems to me that politics affects the daily lives of Israelis and Cubans more directly than it ever does for Americans.  Sure, the talking heads on cable would have us believe that life will hinge on this debate or that one.  But, honestly, I'm not sure that that's true.  Our way of life - the freedoms we enjoy, and the opportunities we have - are fairly secure, regardless of what Congress decides to do this year or next.

It's not so in Israel and Cuba.  In drastically different ways, the everyday lives of the citizens of those countries are shaped so profoundly by the way in which their leaders govern.  (In Israel, this revolves around security-related issues.  In Cuba, it's all about economics.)

It's funny, though.  In Cuba, lots of people complained to us about the politics and the government.  Plenty of people talked to us about the futility of maintaining two forms of currency (the CUC and the peso).  Unlike Israelis or Americans, though, Cubans aren't free (or empowered) to do anything about it.

It was a really strange experience, for me, to be in such a politically charged environment, where people weren't really behaving all that politically.

I'm not sure if that makes sense...

Let me try to say it a slightly different way.

Upon reflection, I keep returning back to the night at the Hotel Nacional, when we were privileged to listen to some incredible music from some of the musicians who were part of the Buena Vista Social Club project (a project aimed at celebrating and reclaiming so-called traditional Cuban music from the first half of the 20th century).

The night was so great because, for this brief sliver of time, we were transported to a time and place that was apolitical.  The music of that evening transcended the Revolution, and Castro, the influence of the former USSR, the animosity toward America, the struggle of poverty, the unresolved bitterness of Cuban emigrants who lost everything, etc. etc. etc.  Devoid of all that political baggage, the music just....was. 

It would be irresponsible of me on so many levels if that music was the only thing I remembered about the trip.

But, the knowledge that that music lives on, despite all that has transpired there in the last five decades, gives me some comfort.  And the memory of it makes it easier for me to remember all of the other parts of our trip: the unspoken struggles of the Cuban people that go on - hopefully toward a brighter future.

Days Seven and Eight

We began Day Seven in Cienfuegos.  After checking out of our hotel there, we drove two minutes to the downtown area.  Jorge led us on a walking tour of the area that included the main shopping boulevard - a well-maintained promenade that hinted at the former elegance and beauty of pre-Revolution Cuba:

The walk ended in a major plaza surrounded by municipal buildings, and a still-working theatre from the beginning of the century.

From Cienfuegos, we about an hour or so to Santa Clara, where we had the privilege of meeting David Tascher, the president of the Jewish community there.  Although Santa Clara's Jewish community is about the same size as Cienfuegos' (about 20 families), a decision was made to establish Santa Clara as a sort of regional Jewish center.  As part of that effort: they are in the process of building a small synagogue and community center to serve the Jews of the region.

We met with David at the Santa Clara Jewish cemetery (much smaller than the one we visited in Havana).  The cemetery is dominated by the striking Holocaust Memorial that was erected there several years ago:

It's remarkable how each of the Jewish communal interactions that we had on the trip were different, influenced by the different personalities of the presidents and the communities that they represented.  In the case of Santa Clara, the welcome we received was so warm (I know, I keep coming back to that word in describing these meetings).  In addition to his shpiel about life in Santa Clara and their community, we also met another member of his community that shared a Holocaust reflection with us.  And, although we had travelled to them to present them with gifts of tzedakah and supplies, we were left speechless and moved when they presented us with a gift: a wooden carving of a dove and the word shalom

After our meeting with David in Santa Clara, we stopped at the nearby memorial to Che Guevara.  (I was feeling kind of sick at the time so I'll leave it to others to post their thoughts and pictures about that....)

Then, we headed back on the road for the long drive to Havana.

Our final dinner of the trip: at the lovely Cafe Oriente, where we enjoyed fine food and music, toasted new friendships, and even enjoyed a visit with Pierre, the travel agent who helped to arrange our trip (thanks Pierre!).

The following morning, we made a few sightseeing stops before heading to the airport.  We spent some time walking around the campus of the University of Havana.  It was kind of like a smaller scale version of any American college campus I've been to....with the only addition being the assortment of war memorials dedicated to university students who took part in various battles of the Revolution:

Then a quick stop at the memorial (only in Havana...) dedicated to the memories of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg:

Then, a final stop at Revolutionary Square (akin to the Mall in Washington - one of Havana's main central gathering places) for our final group picture in front of the monument to Jose Marti:

From there, it was off to the airport....Homeward Bound.

I'll try to summarize some of my final reflections in a separate posting.  In the meantime, I'll echo the thanks that our group offered up on the final morning to our guide Jorge, and our driver Jesus, for leading us on an incredible adventure.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day Six

From the home base of our hotel in Cienfuegos, our sixth day was dominated by a tour of Trinidad, a town about an hour and a half away.

Like the Old Town of Havana, Trinidad is a UNESCO cultural heritage site.  It has largely maintained its 18th and 19th century qualities.  The town is dominated by a central plaza:

Overlooking the plaza is a mansion that once belonged to one of the sugar barons of the region:

The mansion is dominated by a lookout tower with stunning views of the surrounding area:

Our day in Trinidad wasn't just about experiencing its history, or taking in its sights.  We also spent time in the morning in the regional high-risk pregnancy clinic.

On the surface, the facility seemed a little dated - the building was in a state of disrepair, and the plumbing could not be compared with comparable American facilities.

But, during our meeting with the doctors and nurses that run this institution, we found that appearances can be deceiving.  The Cuban state-run medical system has a creative set of solutions in place to meet the needs of pregnant women who encounter challenges during their pregnancy.  Here's a picture of group member Steve Drosman (an OB/GYN) talking with reps of the clinic, after we presented supplies that we had brought to donate:

Dinner that evening was at the Palacio right next to our hotel in Cienfuegos:

If you'll permit me an inside reference for the trip participants: suffice it to say, the beauty of the setting was greater than the beauty of the piano playing...

Days Four and Five

The last I had posted, the group was on the verge of going out for the evening on Saturday night.  We dined together at a palladar.  As I think I posted at that time, a palladar is something of a unique institution in modern day Cuba.  For the most part, since the early 1960s, private ownership was pretty much banned.  People's properties and their businesses were all "nationalized" - in other words: the Cuban government pretty much owns everything.  (The ban on private ownership was one of the factors that drove so many Cubans - Jewish and non-Jewish - to flee Cuba around the period of "nationalization.")  It is not hard to imagine how bitter those Cuban emigrants must have felt - in watching their hard-earned resources snatched away from them.  This bitterness informs much of the anti-Castro politics of the Cuban-American community to this day.

Alas, I digress.

Suffice it to say: God bless capitalism!  Because our meal at the palladar (a privately owned restaurant) was AMAZING!  Maybe the best of the whole trip.  And how could it not have been, with a spot right on the ocean.  (I was too distracted in setting up for Havdalah - I didn't take any pictures of the view...we'll have to rely on the other members of the group for that.)

I did manage to get a picture of a unique Cuban dish that we ate for the first time that night:

The dish has a strange name: "Moors and Christians".  It's a take on the traditional black beans and rice.  Typically in Cuba, the black beans and rice are cooked and served separately.  But in "Moors and Christians" the beans and rice are cooked together. Why the bizarre name?  It's a racial reference to darker skinned Moors and lighter skinned Christians from Spanish history of several hundred years ago.  I loved the dish - both because it tasted good, and because it's a metaphor for the post-racial world that we are all striving for today.

After dinner was over, I was part of the group that went to the Nacional to hear some great music.  It was incredible!!!  A real highlight of the trip.  I know the video quality isn't that great, but the audio is pristine.  Here's a small sample of what we heard:

Day Five had us leaving Havana for Cienfuegos, situated on southern tip of the center of the Island, about a four hour drive.

In the 1920s, Cienfuegos was home to a major botanical garden that established on the Island by Harvard University.  After the Revolution, the Cuban government took the gardens over, where they continue to be maintained today:

Later on Sunday, we ventured to the home of Rebecca Langus, president of the small Cienfuegos Jewish community.   Outside of Havana, the Jewish population in Cuba is very small.  And in Cienfuegos, they do not have their own building, and so they meet weekly in Rebecca's home.  (The community is about 20 families.)

It was so inspirational to see the work that they are doing, with such different resources than the communities in Havana!  They maintain their own Jewish library.  They have weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew (even though they have very minimal Hebrew knowledge).  Working with tutors from Havana and the Joint, they prepare 3-4 students/year for Bar Mitzvah (celebrated at the Patronato in Havana).

In addition to presenting the appreciated tzedakah and supplies that we had brought, we also had the chance to mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) with Rebecca and her family.  As we marked the occasion, she shared movingly about how her son and several other community members were taking part in this year's March of the Living (with some Solel members as well!).  Some pictures of our visit there:

We were struck by Rebecca's warm hospitality  - her willingness to open her home to a group of strangers...It provided us with one of the few glimpses we got during the trip into the real, everyday lives of Cuban Jews. 

And...We're Back.

Greetings everyone!  Our group returned to Miami safe and sound yesterday afternoon at around 3:45 PM Miami time.  Many of us flew directly back to San Diego shortly thereafter.

Your tireless blogger is also the tiredest. 

The lack of posting since Saturday was mostly due to the fact that there was no real Internet service available to us outside of Havana.  Our departure from Havana over the weekend also coincided with the onset of a nasty bug that I have been stuck with ever since Sunday night.  (This morning's diagnosis from the doctor: a bacterial infection.  More antibiotics in my future.  Yippee.)  I'll keep my fingers crossed that I only got half of the bus sick.  :o)

So, from the comfort of my couch at home, where I am covered in a few blankets to ward off the chills (yes, those are violins you should hear playing in the background in sympathy for me) I'm going to make an attempt to post the remaining material from our trip.  Hopefully, my end of this blog project will wrap up today or tomorrow.

In the meantime, I'd like to hear from all of you!  Are there questions that you have about Cuba that we can try to answer for you?  There is a section at the end of every posting where you can post a comment.  Or you can email me at jbrown@templesolel.net.    Also: I've already spoken with the rest of our group, attempting to cajole them to post their own photos and reflections about the journey.  Hopefully we'll begin hearing from them in the next few days as well.

If the free software from the folks at Statcounter.com is at all accurate, then it means that there are hundreds of you out there that have been following along with our journey!  I am humbled that you have found this content to be meaningful, and look forward to hearing from you publicly or privately in the coming days.  Thank you for your support!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Day Four

Hello everyone....

Not too much to report on this end.  Shabbat has been a relatively quiet time for us here.

We spent last evening at the Patronato - the largest synagogue (Conservative in affiliation) in Cuba.

As we had learned earlier in the week, the Patronato's demographics are skewed toward the younger side.  Thus, we were not surprised to find that young people in their community (none of them older than 30, I would say) took responsibility for leading last night's service.

Although some (not all!) of the melodies were unfamiliar to us, the group unanimously agreed that it was spiritually powerful to participate in a prayer service with our Cuban brothers and sisters, realizing that so much of our own Shabbat customs are similar to their's.

We all commented on how inspiringand meaningful it was that the youth took such a prominent role in last night's proceedings (not just the service-leading, but also the obligatory end-of-service musical performance of their school children -- a mini-version of our own Junior Choir!).  I am urging our group to see these accomplishments of the Cuban community within the larger picture of Jewish life around the world.  This is what it's all about for every Jewish community: keeping the flame alive, and passing it along to the next generation.

Services were followed by dinner.  Although the language barrier unfortunately prevented us from directly interacting with too many Cubans during the meal, we did enjoy meeting some American Jewish college students who were there last night.  They are in Cuba on study abroad programs for the semester (yes: legally allowed by the US).

This morning, I returned to the Sephardic synagogue for services.  It was a more intimate (i.e. smaller) crowd, but meaningful nonetheless.  It was also an older crowd - and truly remarkable that these adults (who grew up at a time when the resources of today's Cuban Jewish community did not exist) have committed themselves to Jewish learning, and are able to do what they do.

I was invited to join the community for lunch, and my conversations with their community were a highlight.  Unfortunately, no time to go into more detail about them now.  Suffice it to say: they are LOVELY people.

I should note that - at the conclusion of the lunch - they orchestrated the distribution of supplies to those in need.  It was kind of this unspoken ritual, where there was an automatic deference among the 50 or so people that were there about who was in the greatest need.  They got to line up first, and everyone had a chance to "go shopping" from the supplies that had been laid out.  Although I don't think that these were the supplies that our group had dropped off just this week, I know that they will be put to good use in the coming weeks.

The whole group enjoyed some much-needed R and R time this afternoon.

Tonight: we will all be travelling as a group to a palladar (a restaurant inside someone's private home) - one of the few private capitalistic enterprises allowed by the state.  We'll mark Havdalah (the ceremony ending Shabbat) together there.  Then, some of us will then be heading back to the Nacional in the hopes of hearing music there...and I think a few people are also hoping to take in the world-famous show at the Tropicana.

We head inland tomorrow.  We'll be marking Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and visiting Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Trinidad.  We will not be returning to Havana again until Tuesday.  Internet access is mostly non-existent in tourist areas where we're heading, so I may not be able to post again until Tuesday.  Stay Tuned.

Shavua Tov from Havana....

Friday, April 9, 2010

Day Three

Greetings everyone.  It's 5:30 PM Cuba time, and I am logging on to post before we go off to welcome Shabbat with our new Havana friends in about an hour and a half.

Two things from yesterday, before I write about today's activities:

1) I neglected to post the group photo that we had taken at the Patronato yesterday:

2) I was so excited yesterday to write about our impending evening at the reunion concert of several artists from the Buena Vista Social Club project.  Alas, the concert was cancelled at the last minute, because the lead singer apparently had some health issues!  The 11 of us who were planning on attending still enjoyed a lovely outdoor meal at one of the Hotel Nacional's restaurants.  We are re-grouping, and hoping that some decent live music will be in our future when we try again tomorrow night.

Now, on to today.

Dr. Maritza Corrales (who spoke to the group on Wednesday upon our arrival here), and who is the Island's resident academic expert on Cuban Jewish life, joined us this morning for our journey to Guanabacoa, an eastern suburb of Havana.  Guanabacoa is the birthplace of many famous Cuban jazz musicians.  And - here's your random factoid of the day - was also the birthplace of CNN anchor Rick Sanchez.

Anyway...we went to Guanabacoa to see the first Jewish cemetery established here (by American Reform Jews who came over during/after the Spanish-American War of 1898).  Here's a picture of the entrance to the cemetery:

Although the cemetery began as a joint venture between the liberal Reform Jews and the more traditional Sephardic Jews...the Sephardic community eventually decided that the first cemetery wasn't kosher enough for them, and so they built their own...right next door!  In the picture below, you can see it in the distance:

Dr. Corrales patiently walked us through the cemetery, stopping to tell us fascinating stories about the lives of the many who are buried there.  (She knew many of them personally!)  Our tour culminated at the Holocaust Memorial, situated near the main entrance:

You're looking at the very first Holocaust Memorial erected in the Western Hemisphere - in 1947.  (A few months later the Sephardic community put up their own Holocaust Memorial right down the road...)  Our visit to the site was made especially meaningful, given that Jews around the world will be marking Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - this weekend. 

After leaving the cemetery, we visited Ernest Hemingway's Cuban home, which was located nearby.  Hemingway lived in Cuba on and off between 1939-1960.  He wrote all of "The Old Man and the Sea: from this desk, which sits on the top floor of a mini-tower, on the grounds of his home:

The desk looks out onto an expansive view of the Havana skyline in the far distance.  Jorge tells us that on a clear day, he would have been able to see the ocean as well.  It was definitely invisible to us today.

The house is cool because - by agreement with the Castro government just after the Revolution, everything was kept pristinely, exactly as it was during Hemingway's last few months there.  It's all original furniture, art (including a Picasso clay drawing/inscription), his beloved book collection (emphasis on military history), and even the magazines he was reading:

After lunch at an oceanfront restaurant tucked under the lighthouse/fort of Old Havana, we visited the Museum of the Revolution - filled with historical artifacts of the struggle that culminated in Castro's rise to power in 1959.

This might sound strange, but I was actually looking forward to my visit to the museum.  I have been engrossed in Castro's recently-published autobiography, and feel like I am now something of an 'expert' in all things Revolution-related (at least up until 1959, which is where I am in the book...).  (TANGENT: MANY THANKS TO THE ANONYMOUS SOLEL MEMBER WHO DROPPED THE BOOK OFF AT THE TEMPLE.  PLEASE LET ME KNOW WHO YOU ARE, SO I CAN THANK YOU PERSONALLY!)

Anyway, the museum was a bit of a letdown.  They have not kept the building and its exhibits up to date as well as they might (if they had more financial resources, anyway).  I did enjoy the way they highlighted the "Granma" - the small yacht that carried Castro and 80 other colleagues back to Cuba in 1957 to re-start the Revolution, after a self-imposed exile in Mexico.  I don't know if you've ever been to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley - but they recently built a new glassed-in hangar to house one of the Air Force One planes that Reagan used during his presidency.  The treatment that Cuba has given to the yacht was reminiscent of that (on a smaller scale of course).

Speaking of President Reagan, he was featured in the ridiculous "Wall of Shame" that the Museum features on the first floor:

Yes, that's President Reagan in the middle, and the first President Bush on the left.  On the right....Battista - evil enemy of the Revolution, whose presidency was overthrown by Castro and Company in the final days of 1958.

Tonight: we're off to Shabbat services and dinner at the Patronato (see yesterday's post).

Shabbat Shalom from Havana...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Day Two

Greetings everyone.  It's about 6:40 PM Cuba time here on Thursday.  It's been a busy day.

The bus was rolling at 9 AM (very early for most Cubans, but we were ready to go).  First stop: the Upmann Cigar Factory.  Definitely a must-see stop on any religious pilgrimage to Cuba (well...I guess that's true if you 'worship' a great cigar).  For a variety of reasons (trade secrets or concern for working conditions?) cameras were strictly prohibited on the tour.  The closest I got to a photo is this one, an exterior shot of the building:

I'm not sure that you'll be able to see it, but there's writing on the awning, with the name of the cigar company, and an indication that the building is called the 'Jose Marti' Factory.  You can read all about Marti here.  Our tour guide calls him a combination of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all rolled (yes: a cigar-making pun, sorry) into one.  He's one of the key philosophical backbones to Castro's Revolution.  (More on the Revolution tomorrow.)

The funniest thing, and so un-American.  At the end of the factory tour, they DIDN'T have a store where we could buy cigars!  As an American tourist, I'm so brainwashed into commercially expecting the requisite gift shop at the end of the tour.  Don't fret, though.  There's a highly regarded cigar shop right here in the lobby of our hotel. 

After cigars, it was off to Adath Israel, the Orthodox synagogue of Havana:

Adath Israel is proudly Orthodox, and maintains that families affiliate with them because they are looking for a more 'traditional or Jewishly authentic religious experience.  That's what I would expect to hear from any Orthodox synagogue.  What was unexpected was the open language of partnership that the lay leader whom we met with used, not only in terms of the Conservative community of the Patronato (see below), but - more specifically - with the Reform movement, and with the Reform community of Havana that officially disbanded in the early 1980s.  That community chose Adath Israel to be the official repository of all of its belongings: its archives, its Judaica (including a Torah scroll), and its money.  I was blown away by the lovely archives that Adath Israel lovingly maintains of the Reform community.  One highlight: the prominent display of a newsletter of the National Federation of Temple Secretaries from 1954, highlighting the Reform Movement's creation of the Commission on Social Action (a major Reform milestone!):

What a great example of Orthodox-Reform partnership...

After Adath Israel, it was off to a walking tour of Havana Vieja (the Old City of Havana).  It was recently named a World Heritage Centre by the United Nations.

The area includes a number of streets and alleys with shops, restaurants, and museums.  The area coalesces around the aptly named Plaza Vieja:

Abutting the plaza is an elementary school that we briefly visited.  It was a new and impressive facility.  We had the chance to meet briefly with the school's principal.  Among the many distinguished certificates and awards on her office's wall was:

After the rest of our walking tour, it was off to lunch, followed by our visit to the Patronato - the landmark center of Havana (and the rest of Cuba's) Jewish community.  The Patronato functions as a hybrid synagogue (affiliated with the Conservative Movement) and community center.  The outside of the building is iconic, built in the mid 1950s by the most famous Cuban architect of the time:

We had a meeting with Adele Dworin, President of the Patronato and of Cuba's Jewish community.  We presented her with a huge chunk of the supplies that we brought with us.  (The Patronato has the most sophisticated Jewish supply-distribution operation on the Island.)

After meeting with Adele, we had a tour of the new Youth Wing of the facility with William Miller, Vice President of the Patronato.  The outreach that they are doing to their youth really reminded me of the approach that Craig uses at Solel...making sure that there is a space devoted just to the youth, where they can feel comfortable coming to crash, hang out, etc.  Here are some highlights:

William also made a point of showing us the area in their Multi-Purpose room that the Patronato uses as a staging area for shipping much-needed food and supplies to the much smaller satellite Jewish communities on the other parts of the Island.  (We'll be visiting some of them in the next few days.)

After meeting with William, we went upstairs to the Patronato's very professional pharmacy:

Staffed by doctors and pharmacists several times a week, Jews and non-Jews alike come to the Patronato (prescriptions in hand) to get meds that are impossible to find (or afford) anywhere else.  For us, the visit was especially meaningful because it was easy for us to see - first hand - where the meds that we had brought (graciously donated by so many of you!) would go to be distributed.

Tonight: we're going to enjoy some of Cuba's nightlife, which it is so famous for.  Several group members will be going to enjoy flamenco music and dancing.  I'll be joining the rest of our group at the famous Hotel Nacional, where there is a concert featuring a reunion of many of the surviving musicians who took part in the Buena Vista Social Club project.  I'll share how that went...tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Day One


What a day!  Our group met this morning at the Miami airport.  It was a relatively smooth process checking in.  Even though more than 200 pounds of donated supplies were packed into our luggage, the airline didn't give us a problem with the weight issue.

Our plane was an American Eagle puddle-jumper (of the propeller variety!).  The airport didn't have a jetway hooked up to it.  Instead, we all took a bus out to the tarmac, where the plane was parked.  We were crammed into this bus, and then stuck waiting in it for about 20 mins or so, while the pilot and the maintenance crew did some kind of work on the plane.

The delay gave us the chance to chat with some of the other people who would be travelling with us.

Who else flies to Cuba?

From Miami, it's predominantly Cuban American ex-pats (or their descendants) who are returning "home" to visit relatives, etc.

I wound up having a fascinating conversation with a young couple in their late 20s/early 30s - Priscilla and David.  They just got engaged.  Priscilla's family are Cuban Jehovah's Witnesses (she's non-practicing).  They moved to Miami in the late '50s, when so many others left as Castro and company were coming to power.

David is an American Jew.  She is interested in converting before the wedding.  It was such an interesting conversation to have in advance of our arrival here.  The notion of blended families and blended identities is a huge part of the Cuban Jewish story today (and our own American Jewish one, for that matter).

Anyway...this was Priscilla's very first trip to Cuba - ever!  For whatever reason, after so many decades of living an American life, she was curious to re-connect with her roots.  That notion resonated so deeply with me, and our trip here.  Although none of us on the trip have Cuban ancestry, the reality is that any of our relatives COULD HAVE come to Cuba.  It is merely the accident of history that our relatives made it to America.  So many other Ashkenazi and Sephardic families in the early 20th century either chose (or were forced) to come to Cuba  instead.

Anyway...the flight itself was a smooth one.  Views from the plane were stunning.  This picture is the view from above the Florida Keys.

Here's the requisite 'official' arrival photo:

Ahh...nothing like being welcomed with barbed wire.   :o)

After getting through customs, we were met by our tour guide (Jorge) and bus driver (Jesus).  Both have been warm and welcoming.  We are looking forward to spending the coming week with them.

Then we sped off directly to our meeting, with Dr. Mayra Levy, President of the Sephardic synagogue of Havana.  One of the most interesting parts of Dr. Levy's presentation included her observation that the old religious and ethnic lines that once separated Ashkenazic from Sephardic Jews here are now breaking down.  Indeed, she said that the main demographic variable that distinguishes the Sephardic synagogue crowd on Shabbat from the Ashkenazic one at Beth Shalom (we'll be there tomorrow) is age.  Older Havana Jews now hang out with the Sephardic community.  And Beth Shalom is the happening, hip place where the younger generation hangs out. 

After Dr. Levy's presentation, we went to the hotel, checked in, had a second to rest, and then met with Dr. Maritza Corrales, noted historian of the Cuban Jewish community.  She did a fabulous job of putting Cuban Jewish history in perspective for us...walking us through the different stages of Jewish arrivals and departures from the island.

I was struck (and have a feeling that I will be thinking about this again and again during the trip) by how similar the patterns of Cuban Jewish life are to nearly every other Jewish community around the world: balancing the desire to assimilate vs. retaining traditions; the building of Jewish communal institutions (and always the cemetery first!); tzedakah initiatives to help those in need; the building of educational programs to pass Judaism on to the next generation; and even a healthy set of organizations that promoted different expressions of Zionism. 

Here's a picture of Dr. Corrales:

After her talk, we jetted off to dinner...Had our first taste of black beans and rice.  It was delicious!

I think that's a pretty good start for the blog, for now.  Gotta get some sleep in advance of our busy day tomorrow (especially if I want to stay awake for some potential late night Cuban music or jazz possibilities). 

I'll leave my observations about the politics of Cuba out of here until the end of the trip.  But I will tell you that we have already observed that the country is completely devoid of commercial advertising.  Every sign and billboard is a piece of government propaganda.  It's everywhere! 

That's a segue to my favorite view from the bus today: in the main square in Havana, there are artistic representations of 3 core leaders of the Revolution, including the iconic Che Guevara:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Getting Ready to Go!

With just a few days left before our trip departs, we are making our final preparations.  This past Sunday, on March 28th, we met at the temple to sort through the (literally) hundreds of pounds of donated items that temple and community members dropped off for us.  FOR EVERYONE WHO DONATED: THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR GENEROSITY.

Join us, right here on the blog, for full coverage of our trip (beginning April 7th), with pictures, and maybe even some video, of the presentations that we will get to make, as we share these items with the Cubans that we will be meeting with.

About Me

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Jeff has served as Associate Rabbi of Temple Solel from 2005-2012.