Parshat Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19
“Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece.” (Exodus 25)
The list that we were given for the donations for the Jews of Cuba was even longer. It included clothing, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, office supplies, candles, batteries, sugar-free candy, Judaica items and more. Each of our 31 travelers brought 10 pounds of donations, and because, unlike in the Torah portion, it was never enough, many of us left behind even more clothing and items on our last day. As we entered a synagogue or the living room of the leading Jewish family in Cienfuegos (three hours south of Havana) we would line up, leaving our packages of donations in a pile and handing an envelope of tzedakah to the communal leader.
Unlike in the Torah portion, we were not helping to build for the future, rather we were helping the Jews of Cuba, and other Cubans, with their basic needs. It was quite an experience to follow the pharmacist into the stocked pharmacy within Casa de la Communidad Hebrea de Cuba (El Patronato). On the shelves were products that Cubans cannot easily obtain: anti-bacterial ointment, cold medicine, vitamins and partially used prescriptions with Jewish names from around the world.
Per the Torah, once the tabernacle is built, it will become the center of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. Whenever the pillar of fire or cloud stops, there it will be erected, and around it the tribes will build their tents in an exact configuration. At the center of our trip was the echo “Am Yisrael Chai” — the Jewish people live. We helped the Cuban Jews and we took home the gift of their resiliency and self-study, the strength of their young people who led services and the way they worked together from synagogue to synagogue. Trade embargo or not, it is something that we can import back to the States.
Rabbi Barbara Symons is the rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.