It’s a complicated process – I’ve had to become an expert,” said Robert Miller, director of missions for UJA Federation of North Jersey, discussing his efforts to arrange the group’s upcoming mission to Cuba.
Because the U.S. embargo – which, despite recent Obama administration overtures, is still in effect – prohibits any financial transaction with Cuba (“even booking a hotel room,” said Miller), UJA-NNJ had to obtain a special license available to religious groups. While the application process took only several weeks, requirements are stringent, said Miller, noting that “heritage trips are not enough.”
“It can’t be a drive-by,” he said, adding that he hopes this will be the first of many such missions.
According to government regulations, religious groups must commit to undertake only those activities “that are consistent with U.S. foreign policy.” These include “attendance at religious services as well as activities that contribute to the development of a Cuban counterpart’s religious or institutional development” – for example, youth outreach or assistance in holding religious services.
While federation groups usually use the license already held by United Jewish Communities in New York, “there is a waiting list of a couple of years,” said Miller, explaining why UJA-NNJ chose to apply for its own license.
Miller said the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which maintains an office in Havana, has been helping the local group plan its May 20 to 25 trip.
“They have a standard itinerary,” he said, adding that the JDC will tell participants what, and how much, they can bring with them. Miller said he has also touched base with Englewood resident Enrique Levy, who leads Cuba trips for the Jewish Museum in Manhattan “and has been very helpful.”
Fourteen people – from Englewood, Cresskill, Alpine, Tenafly, and Norwood – will participate in what Miller describes as a “humanitarian and religious aid mission.”
Most of the participants “are well-traveled but have never been to Cuba,” he said.
Explaining that the number of Jews in UJA-NNJ’s catchment area who have visited Israel is well above the national average, Miller said the federation is in a “unique position. We wanted to offer our constituents something meaningful and new.”
Missions to Israel, however, are ongoing, said Miller, who also heads UJA-NNJ’s Physicians & Dentists Division. That group is planning an Israel mission in January, he said.
According to Miller, the Cuba mission will bring the Cuban Jewish community “religious and moral support.”
“They look for this,” he said of Cuba’s 1,500 Jews, most of whom live in Havana. “It’s very important to them. And for our people, it will be a chance to see our brothers and sisters in a once-thriving community and bring them hope. It will make them aware of an endangered Jewish community so close to us.”
An estimated 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power. Today, while Havana can boast three synagogues and Jews have been allowed to practice their religion freely since 1991, there are no ordained rabbis and few kosher facilities.
On their arrival, the group will be briefed by JDC representatives, who will speak about the agency’s program in Cuba and the history of the Jewish community there. Later, the visitors will receive a briefing on U.S. policy and relations with Cuba at the U.S. Interests Section in the Swiss Embassy.
Among other points of Jewish interest, participants will visit the Old Jewish Quarter; the Patronato Synagogue, which houses a large Jewish library; the Sephardic Hebrew center, founded in 1954; and Adath Israel, a traditional Orthodox synagogue that contains Cuba’s only mikvah. They will also visit the community cemetery, joining with local volunteers to help clean the area.
During their time in Havana, they will visit with Jews of all ages, assisted by a bilingual guide. Miller pointed out that some Cuban Jews speak Hebrew as well. Group members will not only meet with community leaders but will participate in workshops on volunteerism and leadership with younger Jews and synagogue teachers. Miller said he hopes participants will establish relationships with individuals in Cuba and correspond with them after the trip.
According to Miller, changes made by the Obama administration in U.S. policy toward Cuba have not made the travel planning process less onerous.
“No one thinks it’s easier,” he said, explaining that the president has changed only those policies made by executive order – in particular, visitation rules for Cubans living in the U.S. who have family remaining in Cuba.