Mission to Cuba

The members of Temple Kol Ami’s Mission to Cuba stand before Templo Beth-Shalom in Havana. The largest synagogue in the Cuban capital, it is also known as El Patronato and considered the headquarters of the Jewish community in the island nation.    

Photo courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Schneider

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami recently returned from a mission to Cuba with his synagogue; here are his reflections about the trip, written on the plane making the journey back from Havana to Phoenix via Miami. 

We often quote the teaching from the Talmud that “all Jews are responsible one for the other.” It’s at the core of Jewish social ethics. But why are we all responsible for each other? I think that it’s hard, in this day and age, to remember that we Jews really are all part of one giant family. Temple Kol Ami’s Mission to Cuba helped to remind me (and the 29 others who joined me) of this essential lesson.

There are some interesting similarities between the state of Jewish life in Cuba today and that of Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe. To varying degrees, both communities had once-thriving centers of Jewish life, followed by the sudden decrease of a vast majority of the local Jewish population, followed by several decades of virtually no organized Jewish life. Today, in both central/Eastern Europe and in Cuba, self-identifying Jews get to make a remarkable choice: Do they accept the helping hand of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the State of Israel and continue to embrace their Jewish identity by making aliyah? Or, do they choose to stay in Europe/Cuba and rebuild Jewish life from the remnants, with the help of an organization like the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)?

Cuban Jews today are making both choices. In all of our stops, we were impressed by the repeated references that communal leaders made to programs like Birthright and the March of the Living. These communally funded trips to Israel (mostly by the Canadian Jewish community) provide a pathway for young people who are considering aliyah. The Jewish impulse to build the Jewish state, combined with the desire on the part of some to pursue a better life for themselves abroad, is leading some young people to aliyah. (Many of the communal leaders that we met had a child living in Israel.)

Nonetheless, the side of Jewish life in Cuba that we witnessed firsthand was represented by those Jews who have made the remarkable and inspiring decision to stay – to stay and rebuild, ensuring that Jewish life can continue to thrive on the Island, as it once did decades ago.

The decision to stay and build is so inspiring because they are doing so much with so little. When I think of the kind of resources that our community at Temple Kol Ami and the rest of the Jewish community of the Valley enjoys, I marvel at what these smaller communities are able to do with so much less. What they lack in actual dollars they make up for in courage and creativity.

I kept returning to the notion that it was only by the accident of history and fate that my great-grandparents landed in New York City from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. History teaches us that it could have just as easily been that their passage might have been redirected to Havana – and the rest of the history of my family would have been forever changed.

So, of course it’s a chance for me to feel some humility, and gratitude, for having been born into the life I was born into.

But, for me, the greater learning from this Mission to Cuba is not how different Cuban Jews are from us, but how similar they are — specifically, in this case, referring to our common origins.

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