Curiosity driven by a search for culture enabled almost 70 Jews to coast through Cuba in classic cars this past Chanukah. Although voyaging in vintage vehicles was not the cause for coming to the Caribbean island, it was certainly an added benefit, said Joan Stein of Forest Hills.
As one of several local Jews who joined Amazing Journeys, a Pittsburgh-based travel company which offers vacations for Jewish singles, Stein enjoyed a recent weeklong cruise to Cuba complete with exploration, discussion and experiential learning.
“It was an amazing experience. I was exceptionally touched by the time we spent with the Jewish community in Havana,” said Stein.
Engaging firsthand with Cuban Jewry enabled foreign tourists to understand both the history of Cuba’s Jewish community as well as its present day realities, explained Malori Asman, founder and president of Amazing Journeys.
Building relationships with members of the Cuban Jewish community, hearing their stories and allowing a chance for reflection is part of the “powerful” experiential learning, explained Chris Herman, an educator who worked with Amazing Journeys to develop various Jewish learning opportunities for its Dec. 25 through Jan. 1 Cuba New Year’s Eve cruise.
Discussion aided the educational excursion. During the first day at sea, Herman guided the group in a conversation on elements needed to form a Jewish community. Enhancing the exchange was a recognition that with limited resources priorities must be made.
Collectively, the discussions, meetings and reflections provide a “personal journey for the individual to go through,” said Herman.
Along with opportunities for introspection, Amazing Journeys delivers wonderful social encounters, said Carol Tabas.
“My Facebook friends’ list practically doubles every time I go on one of these trips,” explained the Pittsburgh resident, who has participated in three Amazing Journeys vacations.
Although the recent Cuban visit was geared for Jewish singles in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, Amazing Journeys offers adventures for diverse groups, including Jewish singles, couples, family reunions or friends wishing to travel together. While some of the 67 participants had traveled with Amazing Journeys before, most had never been to Cuba. Several travelers admitted that their decision to go was fueled by a quest to see a seemingly unadulterated culture.
“I wanted to go before Cuba changed too much,” said Wendy Feldstein of Pittsburgh, who worried that with “more and more” American influence, Cuba will alter from “the way it’s been.”
“I would be interested to see how Cuba looks 10 years from now, after 10 years of American tourists,” added Stein.
“This is a country that time has frozen for six decades,” said Asman. The moment you “step onto the Island in Cuba” you notice that “the clothes are not updated or modern, the homes are as they were in the ’50s and ’60s, the cars are as you would have seen in the ’50s and ’60s, there has been no influx of new infrastructure for so many decades you really feel like the clock has stopped and you are coming into this country as if it were 1958.”
Perhaps furthering a sense of time past was the group’s Friday afternoon activity. Prior to Shabbat services, the travelers pulled up to a synagogue in pristine antiquated automobiles that Amazing Journeys rented for a night of sightseeing.
While touring Havana was a trip, the highlight of the entire week may have occurred earlier when the group met Adela Dworin, vice president of Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, or “the Jewish ambassador of Cuba,” said Stein.
Among Dworin’s many responsibilities is overseeing a pharmacy for Jews and non-Jews that is located in Havana’s El Patronato synagogue.
Dworin described efforts to obtain items such as syringes for diabetics or adult diapers, said Erin Herman, marketing director for Amazing Journeys.
As a tourist, “you are the ambassador of goodwill from your country and you bring tourist dollars,” said Asman, while the residents “are giving us an understanding of a place we know nothing about.”
The weeklong cruise, which afforded stops in Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Havana, also provided connections between the Amazing Journeys participants and other passengers. While lighting Chanukah candles one night in a bar area of the Fathom’s Adonia, a 704-passenger ship, other Jewish cruise-goers took notice of the Amazing Journeys group and joined up for a round of Chanukah songs. In another instance, off-board, a realization caught several people’s attention. At the Friday evening services in Havana there was an absence of professionally led prayers.
“There was a dozen teenage kids leading services Friday night,” said Stein.
The youthful nature of the penitents only enhanced the atmosphere, said Tabas, who praised “the vibrancy of the life of the synagogue.”
Overall, the trip was “amazing,” added Tabas. “It surpassed my expectations, what I thought I would see I saw but to a greater extent — the lives, the color there, the laughter there — it was a beautiful country.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.