UJA-NNJ Cuba trip ‘a study in contrasts’

UJA-NNJ Cuba trip ‘a study in contrasts’

Lawrence Krule and Susan Fader arrive in Havana as part of a UJA-NNJ delegation.

The small Jewish community of Cuba is short on material goods but thriving spiritually – that’s the picture painted by a 24-member delegation that visited the island nation last month as part of the outreach program of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The trip was a study in contrasts, the New Jersey visitors said, with signs of deprivation counterbalanced by a Jewish community imbued with a robust tie to religion.

“Cuba was extremely cool and amazing,” said Larry Krule of Teaneck. “It felt like 1959 frozen in time, with buildings in various states of decay,” he continued, and the trip was an opportunity to help a Jewish community that is “tenacious.”

U.S. government restrictions bar trade with Cuba, but religious and humanitarian gifts are permitted, said Bob Miller, director of missions for UJA-NNJ, who went along on the trip.

For Judy Gold of Norwood and her family, it was a journey of giving, but also of receiving a lesson on how the have-nots manage to survive. She was accompanied by her husband, Ron, and their children – Samantha, 21, Jessica, 16, and Evan, 14. They are members of Temple Sinai in Tenafly and Temple Emanu-El in Closter.

Also along were Ron Gold’s parents, Abe and Anita Gold, his sister, Karen Kashin, and her son and daughter, Michael, 24, and Rachel 21. The family dedicated the community’s pharmacy and helped stock it with items they brought.

“The people have nothing; it’s sad,” Judy Gold said. Among items they brought were Advil, Desitin, Tums, sanitary products, and soap and toothbrushes.

“It’s nice to do tzedakah at home, but it’s important to do it abroad,” she said. It was her second trip to the island; she’d been there last May on a similar visit. For her children, she said, the trip was a valuable eye-opener. “The kids needed to see things like this,” she said.

“It let me see how privileged we are to have the things we have in the U.S.,” said Evan, a ninth-grader at Dwight Englewood School. He cited medicine, cars, and electronics. Evan noted that a single X-Box video player the group brought would be shared at the community center, known as the Patronato, while in the United States, youngsters typically have their own.

It’s not all about material things, Evan said. “Kids there [in Cuba] really wanted to go to services,” he said. “I’d love to go back, I want to give.”

The group stayed in what Gold described as a nice hotel, the Melia Cohiba, but when they walked outside the area looked “bombed out.” The shops were bare and the houses dilapidated, she said. Krule told of seeing bakeries run out of bread and simply close their doors.

The Americans visited Cuba’s three synagogues, all in Havana – the Orthodox Adot Israel, a Sephardic congregation, and the Conservative Beth Sholom. The last houses the Patronato, the community center that also serves as the liaison of the Jewish community to the government.

Besides Jewish services, the group saw few overt signs of religion in Havana. They arrived on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, and found signs of the holiday scarce, said Miller Рjust one cr̬che and some decorations. They left on Dec. 28.

Today, the Jewish population is reportedly 1,500. There is no permanent rabbi, but the island’s three synagogues are served periodically by visiting rabbis from Latin America. The community is active and vibrant, with hot chicken dinner on Friday nights, regular Shabat services, and a children’s Hebrew school, the visitors said.

Besides the pharmaceutical items, the visitors brought other gifts, including prayer shawls and prayerbooks, video games, and the X-Box videogame player for the community center. Yarmulkes were a big hit, said Bob Miller.

Ron and Judy Gold stand in front of a pharmacy they dedicated.

“I would have expected the Jewish people to be more downtrodden,” said Miller, who described them as upbeat. “They are a small group and they stick together,” he said.

“The gifts are so valuable to Jews in Cuba, it encourages them,” Miller said. “They have such a hard time,” living in small, decrepit apartments.

“It was inspiring that there continue to be Jews in this land of deprivation,” Krule said.

While aid from the United States is restricted, assistance flows from Jewish communities in places like Panama and Mexico.

The visitors did not see any hint of anti-Semitism, and Krule told of street signs leading to the synagogues.

There were many incongruities. Krule told of riding in a taxi that was a 1928 Ford, a vehicle that would be vary valuable as an antique in the States. He also told of visiting a restored hotel, a relic from the glory days of Cuba as a resort, where the front entrance and the door to each room had a mezuzah and the rooms were named after biblical people and places.

Krule, a member of Cong. Rinat Yisrael and founder of the Davar Institute in Teaneck, was accompanied by his wife, Susan Fader, and their college-age children, Miriam, Laura, and Jackson.

“Everybody was suffering from deprivation,” Krule said. “We had the sense that anything we could leave behind would be appreciated.” He said while most buildings suffered from age and deterioration, the synagogues were generally in good shape.

Fader cited the children’s participation in the Havdalah service. “It was incredibly moving to hear the kids singing the same tunes that Jewish kids are singing all over the world,” she said.

In a place with such an isolated and small Jewish community, it’s a “remarkable continuity” of Jewish life, she said. “I was really amazed at the openness and friendliness of the Jewish community.”

The group had a sense of freedom of travel, Krule said, and they were not trailed or monitored.

A Jewish presence in Cuba is centuries old. A crewman with Columbus’ expedition to the new world was reported to be the first Jew on the island. An influx of Jews from Brazil was reported in the 16th and 17th centuries.

An American connection took root after the Spanish-American War, and a congregation was founded in 1904. More Jews settled on the island after World War I, with a wave of immigration from Turkey and Eastern Europe, according to B’nai B’rith International.

The Jewish community prospered over the following decades, largely in the apparel business and the professions, and the Jewish population reached a reported peak of 15,000. Jews joined the exodus of other Cubans after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the Jewish population was reportedly reduced by 90 percent.

While religion is freely practiced now, it wasn’t always so. The Jewish community “skipped a step,” said Miller, and a whole generation grew up without much religion. He thought that is the reason that the older people and the younger ones are more evident in Jewish life, with “a chunk missing in the middle.”

The Castro regime took an anti-Israel stand, but was reportedly generally respectful of its Jewish population. Cuba had been part of the Soviet bloc, but when that came apart the government eased its restrictions on religious practice in 1994, Miller said.

Today the government still does not have relations with Israel, but in the Jewish community there are ties to the Jewish state. The Israeli and Cuban flags are displayed side-by-side in the synagogues and one of the community members received training in Israel as a ritual slaughterer, Miller said.

While the visitors brought the Cuban Jews a message of hope, they also brought that same message home with them.

“In spite of everything, Jewish life survives,” Krule said. “It was depressing and inspirational at the same time. We will go back.”

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