By Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz, Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Minnetonka, MN
Cuba has taken center stage in the news this past month with the historic visit of President Obama. I had the privilege of leading a congregation trip to Cuba sponsored by our Adath Jeshurun that just preceded the President’s. Though ours had a somewhat lower profile, it was a deeply meaningful experience for all of us who had the privilege to participate. We were a group of 31 whose hope was to learn more about this island that Columbus referred to as the “pearl of the Antilles.” The first Jew to set foot on the island was Luis De Torres, a converso who arrived with the Columbus expedition in 1492, perhaps fleeing the inquisition. Fluent in Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, he served as the ship translator, hoping to be able to communicate with the indigenous people they would encounter.
Torres did not live beyond that first year, but Cuba became a welcoming port to Jews for much of its future history. Most of the island’s Jews fled the country around the time of the 1959 revolution. Our trip was an extraordinary opportunity to encounter some of the approximately 1200 Jews who continue to live in Cuba and have been rediscovering their Jewish heritage since greater religious freedom began in the 1990s. I highly recommend reading Ruth Behar’s compelling study, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, which powerfully conveys that story and features many of the people we met during our travels.
It was deeply impressive to see firsthand the ways that the Jewish life has been revitalized in Cuba. Much of this is attributable to the effective work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) or “El Jointo” as it is referred to in Cuba. Through the efforts of the “Joint,” synagogues have been rejuvenated, Jewish life and learning has been revitalized, and Jews have reconnected to our people. The JDC could not function so effectively around the world (other than Israel) were it not the beneficiary of the nearly one million dollars that our Minneapolis Federation directs to it from our annual campaign.
Our Cuban brothers and sisters deeply appreciate our support and solidarity. It was positively inspiring to see the dedication of the lay leaders we met who have made possible the rejuvenation of Cuban Jewish religious and communal life. It was perfect that the week we visited Cuba’s synagogues, among other touring we did, was when the Jewish people were reading parshat Vaykhel, which starts with Moses assembling the people to build the ancient Tabernacle. Vaykhel is from the same Hebrew word as kehillah, meaning “community.” It was incredible to see the common impulse that drives us at Adath Jeshurun, in the Minnesota Jewish community, and in these revitalized Cuban synagogues to build meaningful Jewish communities to support another generation in creating a vital Jewish life. We look forward to seeing what warming relations between the USA and Cuba will bring in the years ahead.
To learn more about our incredible global partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which we call JDC and Cuban’s call “The Joint,” visit their website.
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