Detroiters Discover Jewish Community of Cuba

First the cigars, those world-famous cigars. Then the streets lined with classic American cars, gleaming and frozen in time. And then the dances— the Rumba, the Cha Cha, the Salsa, all born right there. After that, maybe the rum, or maybe the sandwiches.

But rarely when one thinks of Cuba does one first think of its Jewish community. For twelve young men from Detroit, however, this country’s small and historic, but diverse and growing, Jewish community will forever be what they first recall when remembering their recent trip to Cuba.

On May 28th, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit boarded a plane to Miami for a mission that would open the participants’ eyes to the legacy, the struggles and the exciting future of Jewish Cuba. Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit along with the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee), one of their largest overseas partners, designed the trip to reconnect participants to their Jewish heritage through a truly unique experience while creating powerful, personal connections and seeing first-hand the work that the Federation does for our Jewish communities around the world.

“I knew very little about the Cuban Jewish community before joining this mission,” said mission co-chair Matt Ran. “But being there and having conversations with their young Jewish leaders about the challenges that they face – and how they’re working together to overcome them and build Jewish life there –  made me realize that whether in Detroit or in Havana, we all have the same hopes and dreams for our communities’ futures.”

Danny Kaufman and Matt Ran, mission co-chairs

Danny Kaufman and Matt Ran, mission co-chairs

Through its direct support of overseas organizations including JAFI, JDC and World ORT, the Detroit Federation assists Jews in over 80 countries around the world. For the upcoming 2015-16 year, the Detroit community has approved $8.65 million from its 2015 Annual Campaign and another $1.04 million from the Sue and Alan Kaufman Challenge Fund to be support Jews across the globe. But many of these efforts go untold or take a backseat to stories happening in our own local community or in Israel.

“Did you know that each Cuban receives a ration of only three-quarters of a pound of meat per month?” asks Miryam Roseznweig, Federation’s Senior Director of Community Development who also staffed the mission.

A chicken dinner every Shabbat

“But through our overseas allocations, Federation provides a chicken dinner every Shabbat for the entire Jewish community in Havana. It’s amazing to think that we had no idea that Federation did this. And there are countless stories like this — how Federation dollars are making a difference all over the world, every day. We just don’t hear them.”

Mission participants learned about the many educational, social and welfare programs developed by the JDC to assist the Jewish community in Cuba. They toured the community center, Sunday school and a pharmacy that houses the JDC Cuban Relief Project, which works to keep the shelves stocked with necessities.

“While the community in Cuba may be small, it’s diverse, and they are sharing their Jewish resources in a way that’s really inspiring,” said mission participant Chad Silver. “We visited the only mikvah and the only kosher butcher shop. On the day that we went to the Jewish cemetery and said Kaddish at the Memorial to the Holocaust, it really hit home that we are one people.”

Group in Old Jewish Quarter

Group in Old Jewish Quarter

The Detroiters walked through Havana’s Old Jewish Quarter to Adath Israel, the city’s traditional Orthodox synagogue. They toured the Sephardic Hebrew Center, the only Sephardic synagogue in Havana. And they visited the Patronato Synagogue, home to a full library and impressive collection of Jewish books, where they stayed for Friday night services and Shabbat dinner.

“Once we started Kabbalat Shabbat, there was no language barrier, there were no differences,” said mission co-chair Danny Kaufman.  “Everyone was singing the same words to the same tunes that we had all known for years. We were simply a group of Jews, welcoming the Shabbat, sharing a tradition that has been around long before us and will be around long after us if we continue to support Jewish communities around the world.”

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