By Jane Calem Rosen
Originally featured in the autumn 2008 issue of JCC Circle.
Those are some of the impressions a group of JCC Association board members and staff took away with them after they visited Cuba in the spring. The group toured the national art museum and took in a performance by the Cuban National Ballet. “It was spectacular,” said former JCC Association Chair Ann Kaufman, from Houston. “Even though the carpet was torn and the seats were broken [in the performance hall], the dancers were A-plus.”
The idea for the trip was generated at a Biennial Committee meeting chaired by Noreen Gordon Sablotsky. The idea quickly took hold. So instead of heading home when the JCCs of North America Biennial concluded in Miami, a group of 45 – board members, JCC presidents, and executive directors and spouses – boarded a plane at Miami International Airport bound for Jose Marti Airport in Havana.
This first mission to Cuba was led by Arnie Sohinki, senior vice-president for program services, who arranged for the required license from the U.S. Department of Treasury for travel to Cuba under the State Department’s “People-to-People” exchange program. (Although the United States and Cuba still do not have diplomatic relations, since 1999, the U.S. government has encouraged educational, cultural, religious, humanitarian and athletic missions, as well as limited business and professional contacts.)
Perhaps the most surprising discovery was the lack of anti-Semitism and the degree to which Jews may openly practice their religion. Although Castro has been outspoken in his condemnation of Israel and Zionism, a picture of his visit to a Havana synagogue hangs prominently in the congregation’s lobby, and Cuba’s Jews are proud of their country’s history of welcoming Jewish refugees. Today, mission participants were told, there are no barriers to anyone who wishes to make aliyah. Cuban Jewish community leaders expressed the desire to see relations with the United States normalized, the better to foster closer ties with the American Jewish community, said Steve Rubin, a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who went on the trip with his wife, Wendy.
The larger of the two Ashkenazi congregations, known as the Patronata, with a fitness center on the premises, functions as much like a JCC as a house of worship. Moreover, it is an open secret throughout Havana that the synagogue operates a pharmacy where shelves are stocked with prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, medical supplies, toiletries and cosmetics. The pharmacy, which serves the entire community, is wholly supported by donations from abroad, hand-delivered by religious-cultural missions and in care packages sent by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“We came with suitcases filled with Tylenol, Advil, Band-Aids and more,” said Rubin. The pharmacy, he observed, “is run by an incredible woman, a physician who volunteers her time.” (The group also brought books and baseball cards for the children. Cubans are crazy about baseball, and the island has produced some spectacular players.) While Cuba’s national health care system does provide free high-quality care and exports doctors to the rest of Latin America, it remains difficult for ordinary citizens to obtain medications and other common medical supplies.
The group also visited the small Orthodox congregation in Havana’s historic district. Learning that the synagogue serves breakfast after the morning minyan, but sometimes finds it hard to feed everyone who shows up, Noreen Gordon Sablotsky, chair of the 2008 Biennial and a Miami resident, suggested that mission participants do something hands-on to help. Because tourists have a separate currency and access to goods and services not available to Cubans, she explained, “we were able to buy five to six dozen eggs, coffee, milk and cookies right on the street. Cubans are not allowed to do that.”
It is important, suggested Rubin, for those who made the trip to bring the story of Cuban Jewry home with them. “As active leaders in our communities, we can try to persuade everyone [including Congressional representatives] of the importance of re-opening the borders to further cultural and other types of exchanges.”
Added Arlene Fickler, a Philadelphia lawyer who has served on the JCC Association board for the past two years: “American Jews have always reached out to Jews in other countries when they are at risk, politically or economically. It was clearly important for us as a board to go to Cuba and let Cuban Jewry know that we view them as brothers and sisters and are there to advocate for them. In the 1960s, when the Cold War with Russia was hot and we were at war in Vietnam and had no relations with China, it may have made sense for us to freeze out Cuba as well. Today, in a very different world, that isolationist policy no longer makes sense.”
Finally, the mission proved to be a wonderful bonding experience for the board. Said Jane Gelman of Milwaukee, a board member since the mid-‘80s, “This was a great way for us to get to know each other better.”