A mission of mercy

My bar mitzva trip to Castro's island.

cuba shul 88 (photo credit: )
cuba shul 88
(photo credit: )
After being herded off the airplane and into the dilapidated Havana airport in early 2003, I found myself surrounded by soldiers and Cuban flags billowing in the wind. I was excited to finally arrive in Cuba, though I had no idea what lay ahead of me. My mother rummaged through her bag as we approached the passport control, only to find that our visas were missing. Stuck in the Havana airport with no visas and no way of entering the country, it became quite evident that my bar mitzva tzedaka project would be unlike any other. In the course of reading about the small yet vibrant Cuban Jewish community, my family and I decided to establish a children's Jewish library in Havana in honor of my bar mitzva. My mother and I partnered with the Cuban American Jewish Mission (CAJM) and traveled to Cuba to meet the community and bring in books for the library; the visa we had originally received was granted on humanitarian grounds. After finally finding our visas and entering Havana, I thought Cuba to be somewhat of a twilight zone. Many of the cars were from the 1960s and one was hard pressed to find the luxuries that many people enjoy today. The country itself is aesthetically beautiful, with gorgeous beaches and lots of sun. For many European tourists it is the ultimate vacation destination. But however pleasant Cuba may seem to the unsuspecting tourist, there are two distinct and independent societies I encountered: "tourist Cuba" and "real Cuba." The chasm between these two societies was first evident upon arrival at our hotel. I stayed at the Hotel El Presidente, a beautiful accommodation in central Havana which houses many tourists. The hotel seemed normal, except for one odd feature: There were no Cuban guests. I later found out that Cuban citizens are prohibited from entering that hotel, or any tourist-class hotel for that matter. In fact, security guards are stationed at the doors to ensure that no Cubans enter, lest tourist Cuba and real Cuba interact. From that point on, I began to notice that the beautiful facade of tourist Cuba had a dark underbelly in which the Cuban population lives in poverty and yearns for basic freedoms. ONE OF THE first Cubans I met was a brilliant woman named "Ruthie." After years of medical school and endless hours of study, Ruthie became a brain surgeon. While American brain surgeons are among the wealthiest physicians in the States, Ruthie said she earns around $28 a month. In Cuba, wages are low, healthcare is free and often times those who make the most money are those who earn it illegally. In fact, an uneducated cab driver or hotel employee who receives tips can earn more in a month than a university-trained brain surgeon. In addition to the poverty, many Cubans live in fear. Citizens are discouraged from talking about - let alone criticizing - the government. Some Cubans believe there are cameras on the roofs of buildings, monitoring their actions. Due to this paranoia, it was quite difficult to learn people's true feelings about their lives. However, there remained a few who were willing to share their stories. One teen I spoke to said she wants to go to the States but is prohibited from doing so by the government. Rare exceptions allow people to visit relatives outside Cuba, but leaving is almost impossible as few can afford the trip. Perhaps the saddest part of the "Cuban Cuba" I witnessed was the way in which people purchased their food. Every family is issued a Libreta, or ration card to be used at food distribution centers. The people venture to central rationing stations and line up for what could be hours, partaking in this dehumanizing process just to get a loaf of bread. WHILE THE people endure many hardships, the Cuban Jewish population remains vibrant and exciting. There are three synagogues in Havana: one Sephardi, one Orthodox and one Conservative, all of which are well attended. I had the privilege of spending Shabbat in Havana. Friday night, people traveled more than two and a half hours by bus to participate in a community dinner, which is paid for every week by a philanthropist in California. Although participation at the dinner is in part due to the free food, the community was visibly tight-knit and proud of their Jewish heritage. The books I brought into Cuba are still used today by the Cuban Jewish community. In addition to books, we brought in prescription drug samples donated by D.C.-area doctors. The Cuban Jewish community thrives today thanks in large part to help from Jews worldwide. That Shabbat night I met some of the amazing children of Cuba. Because these children lack the material possessions many children elsewhere enjoy, the Cuban children are less materialistic and more united. They are also very proud of their Judaism and enjoy learning the customs and religion. Shabbat morning I went to the Conservative synagogue/ community center, called the Patronato. During services, a 13-year-old boy read beautifully from the Torah. More impressive than his reading, though, was the visible pride he took in his religion and in completing his feat. I left Cuba the next day. At passport control, I was stopped before entering the plane by an agent. He requested my passport, which I happily provided. Then the agent asked me a number of questions about my stay in Cuba, all aimed at deciphering whether I was in fact a tourist or a Cuban trying to escape. The agent looked at my face and the passport picture numerous times, still not sure that I was truly who I purported to be. I was finally allowed on the plane, but the experience left a lasting impression. While I can come and go as I please, most Cubans are imprisoned on the island.