The flight from Miami to Havana lasts less than an hour, but when a recent delegation from Pittsburgh went to the island nation of Cuba last month, its members felt they had entered a completely different world.
The poverty faced by the majority of Cuba’s population is staggering, said Jan Levinson, one of 31 emissaries that traveled with Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David in Monroeville, on a religious mission to understand and help the Jewish community there.
“The architecture is beautiful, but there has been no upkeep for 50 years,” Levinson noted. “The buildings are falling apart.”
Most Cubans earn about $25 a month. A surgeon might fare a bit better, Levinson learned, earning about $60 a month.
The 1,500 Jews of Cuba struggle economically along with the general population, which is why missions such as the one led by Symons are so crucial. The rabbi had two goals in mind in organizing this trip, which was her first visit to Cuba: to learn about the Jewish community there and to provide it aid.
The experience, Symons said, was “surreal.”
Because of the poverty that pervades the country, a large black market provides a source of extra income for those who are able to participate. A person fortunate enough to have a refrigerator, for example, might earn some extra cash by renting out a shelf to someone else, Symons said.
Close to 95 percent of the Jewish population, which numbered around 15,000, fled Cuba before or soon after the revolution in 1959. Yet, since 1992, when the Cuban constitution was changed to accommodate freedom of religion, Jews have been allowed to leave for Israel. Jews are permitted to travel on Taglit-Birthright trips and to make aliyah, unlike other Cuban citizens.
There are three synagogues in Havana and smaller congregations in the towns of Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Guantanamo. Symons’ group found that the synagogues have become the very center of Jewish life in Cuba.
None of the congregations have a rabbi, but are lay led instead. About 150 people were in attendance at a Friday night Shabbat service in Havana led by a group of young Jews and attended by Symons’ group, according to Levinson; about half of those there were Americans on missions.
There is one kosher butcher in Cuba, noted Levinson, and Havana’s Orthodox synagogue provides meals to community members who come for services.
“That’s how they piece the community together,” Levinson said.
The synagogue also serves as a pharmacy, dispensing over-the-counter and prescription medicine a couple times each week that is otherwise hard to procure. That medicine is brought in by Americans traveling on missions such as Symons’ group.
In addition to medicine, Symons’ group brought with it many other items that the Cuban Jewish population needs, including clothing, towels, linens, and some Judaica donated by Pinskers.
“They just can’t get their hands on these things,” Symons said. “One of the key reasons for the mission was to bring these supplies over. We also brought lots of school supplies and body soap — bars of soap are really hard to get — light bulbs and batteries. We brought over so many supplies, we felt we really made a difference.”
While there, the group visited a Jewish cemetery, which was in disrepair, said Levinson. “It was in heartbreaking condition. There is no anti-Semitism in Cuba, but people are digging up graves because they are poor. The cemetery was in horrible condition. You just don’t know where to start.”
But Cuban Jews are very supportive of their own community, noted David Zimmer, who was on the trip.
“Each one of the Jewish communities there is intra-supportive of each other,” Zimmer noted. “Each one of them shares what they have with other congregations. Their dedication is unbelievable.”
“I was impressed by their strength to stay together and to keep a strong Jewish community there,” said Barbara Broff Goldman, a mission participant.
Symon’s trip came just as the United States and Cuba have begun to work to rebuild a diplomatic relationship.
“There is not really a change in policy,” Symons said. “Nothing has really changed yet.”
But there is “tremendous potential” in Cuba, Levinson said. “If the embargo gets lifted, it could get fixed up.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.