I recently returned from five days in Havana, Cuba.
You're thinking, "Cuba!? How did that happen!?" Turns out, you can travel to Cuba legally from the United States, if you have a special humanitarian visa. (There are other ways, as well, but this is how we did it.) In fact, our congregation has been taking trips to Cuba for over 10 years, on this special visa that allows us to bring aid and comfort to the Jewish community.
There are Jews in Cuba!?
Of course, silly. There are Jews (almost) everywhere.
Actually, the Jewish community of Cuba was once thriving but is now a pretty small remnant. There are probably less Jews in Havana now than we have in one seating on the High Holy Days at our synagogue! For sure, there are more Jews in Highland Park, Ill., than in Cuba. (You can read a little more about the Jews of Cuba here.)
We were able to bring into the country a lot of medical and school supplies, things that are hard for them to come by, and we also brought cash donations to aid their programs, such as senior day care, youth learning, and ritual observances. We visited the two Jewish centers in Cuba - one is Ashkenazi and one Sephardi (but they work together a lot) and some of their projects. One of their main projects is a community pharmacy that helps to supplement the state-run pharmacies that provide medical care in Cuba.
Before we went, I read as much as I could about Cuba. This still left me completely unprepared for the sheer beauty and decay of the place, the happiness all around me, the total poverty that I could see in so many places, and the experiences of being a part of what was once a magnificent city. I know that most of what we saw is "touristy" - even though Americans can't travel as tourists to Cuba, many others certainly do! I met Canadians, Europeans, and South Americans who were all visiting Cuba purely as a tourist destination. It was warm and beautiful, with beaches and beautiful sites to see. The food was quite good, although we didn't drink the tap water, we didn't have any trouble finding places that our guide deemed "safe" for us to eat (and try the mojitos). Nearly every place we ate, there was live music and we also spent just a few minutes in the baseball stadium to get a feel for the Cuban national pastime.
At the end of the trip, we asked our participants (there were 36 of us in total) to offer 6-word summations of the trip. My favorite one was "Short flight. Landed fifty years ago." Only 45 minutes away from Miami is this country that truly feels like a trip to the past. The buildings, the cars, the mentality: Even though modernity is slowly coming to Cuba, there is still an old-world feeling to this place.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the Associate Rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL.
Originally posted at Ima on (and off) the Bima, where you can view more terrific pictures from the trip.