During these Days of Awe, many of us are reflecting upon all that has transpired since last Yom Kippur, 5776. My most immediate reflections take me back to the wonderfully inspiring members of the Jewish community of Havana, Cuba, with whom my fellow mission-goers and I had the distinct pleasure of spending quality time prior to the High Holy Days.
What was once a thriving, wealthy Jewish community of 15,000 some fifty years ago has evolved into an economically impoverished lot of roughly 1,200. Once the Soviet Union abandoned Cuba in the early 1990s, many Jews made aliyah to Israel to escape the harshness of the Castro regime. So now Cuban Jews are basically like everyone else who live on the island. They may receive free health care and education, yet they earn an average income of roughly $25 (convertible pesos) per month, no matter their profession or level of education. They subsist on whatever food and toiletries are made available to them on their monthly ration card–one bread roll a day, six pounds of rice and beans, one serving of protein per week, and toothpaste likened to liquid concrete, assuming such goods are available at the fly-laden and garbage-strewn bodegas and bakeries. They also live in desperately small (and not necessarily air conditioned) apartments alongside their grandparents, parents, siblings, and children.
Our Cuban brothers and sisters may be hungry and impoverished, but no one we met complained or felt sorry for themselves. In fact, I have never encountered a Jewish community more wealthy in spirit, learning, caring, and compassion. Havana’s Jews, whether Conservative or Orthodox, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, worship together, sing and dance together, learn together, celebrate together, play sports together, and spend Shabbat and holidays with one another. All of us mission participants still have tears in our eyes from our participation at the community’s Havdalah celebration, where our new Cuban friends whisked us from our seats at the Patronato JCC to form a circle in order to say goodbye to Shabbat and welcome the new week with prayer and music. Through the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our primary overseas Alliance Annual Campaign funding partner, Havana’s Jewish community’s nutritional needs are supplemented by a Shabbat Dinner program, their transportation needs are facilitated, and their health needs are met through a community pharmacy housed at the Patronato JCC and stocked by missions such as ours.
Avinu Malkeinu, please inscribe us, let alone the Jewish community of Cuba, for blessing in the Book of Life in 5777 and, if not too much to ask this Shabbat, for many, many additional years ahead. Needless to say, our thoughts are with the people of Cuba and the surrounding areas as they recover from the recent devastation of Hurricane Matthew.
May everyone have an easy and meaningful fast.