Bill Cartiff and nearly 30 other Jewish singles recently returned from a trip to Cuba. The expedition, hosted by Best-Day Adventures, a division of Ayelet Tours, was a humanitarian, people-to-people mission for Jewish singles in their 40s, 50s and 60s, explained Cartiff, the group’s leader.
Upon arrival to El Cocodrilo, the traveling pack visited four synagogues in three communities, said Cartiff, of Pittsburgh.
The experience was “incredible,” explained Greg Signer, of Orlando, Fla. “Understanding the Jewish heritage and history there, and the struggles they go through maintaining the synagogues and the Jewish history, was particularly interesting.”
After seeing two synagogues in Havana, the group visited another in Santa Clara and one more in Cienfuegos, a southern coastal city.
“Every synagogue that we visited was smaller and more intimate and more meaningful than the last,” noted Cartiff.
The disparity was striking, added Lynn Samuels, a one-time Pittsburgh resident who now resides in Boston. Visiting the synagogue in Cienfuegos “was a really moving experience,” she said.
While there, the group met with Rebecca Langos and saw a retrofitted sanctuary.
“She [Langos] had transformed her living room into a place of worship,” remarked Cartiff.
There was a bookshelf with Jewish prayer books, another ledge with “candlesticks, a menorah and other Judaica” and “about 30 chairs and a curtain that separated her bedroom from the sanctuary and kitchen,” he added.
Langos’ converted prayer space serves approximately six local families and functions during High Holidays and whenever else the group can convene.
How those few families, or all Cuban Jewry, which numbers around 1,500, for that matter, are able to support these sites is impressive, said Signer.
Aiding such efforts, and as part of the group’s people-to-people mission, each tour attendee brought gifts to share with local residents, noted Cartiff.
Between all of the school supplies, medicines, toiletries, clothing, toys and nonperishable foods, “we ended up with 15 bags with probably over 100 pounds of gifts to deliver,” he said.
“When 34 people bring stuff, it amounts to a lot that can really help many people,” added Samuels.
“[My group] definitely went nuts; they brought more stuff than I even imagined,” remarked Cartiff.
And as “heartwarming” as the moment was, other experiences were equally memorable, he added.
In Havana, the group visited the Jewish cemetery. The stop was particularly personal for “one of my travelers,” as it was the first time that she was able to visit her grandfather’s grave, said the leader.
While there, the group also “visited the cemetery’s Holocaust memorial, where some human remains are buried, and we had a small memorial service,” he noted.
Cartiff was so captivated by the journey that he has already decided to do it again.
“I’m going next April,” he said.
Between April 12 and 18, 2018, Best-Day Adventures will repeat its humanitarian mission to Cuba, with Cartiff again leading the tour.
Traveling to the largest Caribbean island and enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and cuisine was a “bucket-list item for me,” said Signer.
It was “an opportunity to go to a country that we haven’t been able to visit for 50 to 60 years at this point. Just their way of life is vastly different than here in the United States,” he said.
Given all of the encounters, there was much still to reflect on, but a few things really stuck out, said Samuels, particularly, “meeting the Cuban people, and the music and the food.”
Some of which was easier to digest than others, she added. “The food, not so good. The mojitos, very good.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.