Travels to Cuba in 2006-Part II
In January 2006, Pearl Lefkowitz organized a "mission" trip to Cuba. The following is her husband, Howard's, journal of this trip. He sent Heritage these impressions in light of the recent renewal of relations with the country.
Interestingly, we were advised that 400 families (young people?) have made aliyah in the past year. That's a significant chunk of a community of 1500 Jews. I also wonder how many used this as an opportunity to immigrate to other places, particularly the U.S. We were further advised that a significant number of youth were going on Birthright; another group was going to Mexico to compete in a dance competition. (note on 1/15/08: Dr. Miller died approximately 60 days after our visit. I very much question who would replace his leadership in the community)
The amazing thing about this facility was the pharmacy that was run by a volunteer doctor, her daughter who is a pharmacist, and a volunteer lay person. In a couple of rooms of approximately 200 sq. feet, they had accumulated an inventory of medications that would have embarrassed Walgreens. One day a week, anyone (Jew or non-Jew) that presented a legitimate prescription, was given medication, free of charge. While all health care is free, and there appears to be an abundance of doctors within a very organized social system to care for everyone, they don't dispense drugs. This is done thru a government pharmacy, which frequently is very lacking in medications, and does charge for the drugs. That means that many people can't afford them anyway.
As only one group, we brought in approximately 350 to 400 of mostly prescription, and other over-the-counter drugs. The government pharmacies are aware of this, and periodically call the temple pharmacy for drugs, when they are running short. Additionally, the temple pharmacy will provide excess donated or expiring drugs to the government pharmacies, as a gift from the Jewish community. (By now one would think that the government has figured out how innately philanthropic the greater Jewish community really is). Our group had no problem getting anything in. The group prior to us had approximately 50 percent of its donations taken upon entry. While it's possible the stuff ended up as black market contraband (there is a massive black market and under the table economy in Cuba), we can only hope the government "expropriated" the imports for use in government pharmacies or hospitals.
The Sephardic temple appeared to be closer to the Orthodox, but offered the least amount of outside services. They also had the smallest facility, and the least elaborate sanctuary set up. It appears they cater to the remnants of a limited segment of the Jewish population. Whatever number of children attended, were educated with the children at the Patronato. They also accepted medical and other donations for distribution to their membership. We provided them the lesser amount of donations, more because of perceived lack of ability to distribute the help. However, the woman that ran the place was a medical doctor, and while she didn't speak English, was very involved, gracious and appreciative for our donations.
The Orthodox shul, Adath Israel, was the most interesting shul of the three. It could be any shul in lower Manhattan, comprised of remnants of an earlier immigration. The lower floor was the social area, split into two sub areas, one used for daily minyan, the other used for social and social services. By happenstance, while we were visiting, a physical therapist was working on an elderly patient on one side, while we were seated on the other for the orientation, provided by a young man in his 30's, who didn't speak English. The upper floor was the renovated original sanctuary, and was very well presented, with the divider, and central pulpit, and a long, flat ark above that housed most of its 8 Torahs. We were advised that this room was seldom used, and I could understand why, based on the size of the community. It was as if this sanctuary was in waiting "for the Messiah", or at the least, the ultimate rebirth of the local Orthodox community. To my view, this may be a long time coming. However, to the Orthodoxy, I guess that's a matter of perspective and they'll just wait. Regardless, it was a wonderfully rehabilitated facility, which, at the least, provides a tremendous amount of pride for the congregation, limited as it may be. (There was also a picture of the pope with the president of the congregation, hanging on the foyer wall to this sanctuary). We were further advised that this congregation, while older, provided a good deal of support to the local constituency, in the form of food (even kosher dried meats), and medical assistance. After the daily minyan, a breakfast is served. After any regular service, a meal is served. For every holiday function, a meal is served. I believe they also provided food to the sick and infirmed. Because of the age of this congregation, we brought 50 pairs of reading glasses we purchased from the dollar store in Orlando. I wish we'd purchased more. Even outside the synagogue, after we'd left our donations, an elderly couple followed, begging for more. (Our son, Darren, held back to provide the handout). And this doesn't count old Solomon, the self-anointed Gabbai of all three shuls, who managed to show up, asking for a handout, at each shul. (I have no idea how he happened to know our scheduled visitation times)
On a personal basis, I left Cuba with a great many differing and personal feelings. No Jew can experience what we experienced, and not feel an overwhelming need to provide assistance in any way possible. These people are hurting, and only the strongest have the ability to climb above subsistence. Those who can will be physically okay. The synagogues provide them a place for active Jewish identity, and a community outside of the impersonality of a real communist dictatorship. However, I believe that many of these Jews are less capable of fending for themselves and rising above the fray. Without the community help provided to these Jews through these institutions, I think they would suffer even more greatly than what's perceived. (Everyone talks about how much better things are now that in the early 90s when the Soviet Union fell and abandoned Cuba). I believe the synagogues are a lifeline to the people. And, to the credit of Jews everywhere, particularly the Patronato provides services to many in need in the non-Jewish community.
As far as the buildings are concerned, they have now been rebuilt, and based on the size of the Jewish community, don't need much more capital investment. I would be very hard pressed to provide money for that purpose. The old cemetery is another situation however. This needs money and work. From a prioritization, it was appropriate to service the "living facilities" first. Now, the cemeteries should be attended to. However, I can't tell who would really be in charge of so doing. Also, is it really appropriate to sacrifice dollars needed for basic living services and cultivation of Jewish life? There is a legitimate need for some assessment of priority, under this circumstance.
Something struck me very hard, however. It was the comment that 400 families made aliyah this past year. That leads one to ask where this community will be 20 years from now. No one is yet moving to Cuba to expand this Jewish community. We can all speculate as to what the political future holds, and what will open up that will require Jewish communal support. I have a tough time believing that much will be needed for a long time, and that, in fact, this Jewish community, while temporarily thriving from its "rejuvenation" is really an aberration. I really think one must question what facilities will be needed in the future, and where donated capital resources really should be expended. To my way of thinking, there's no question as to humanitarian need, and every reason to continue and expand humanitarian support. Obviously, Jews must look after Jews. The existing synagogue operations provide a mechanism for funneling this help outward. I predict, however, that ultimately, only one of the synagogues will continue to live onward, unless something completely politically unforeseen happens in the future. Until that circumstance is identified, I would encourage anyone who can to funnel humanitarian support to the remnants of this Jewish community.