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Forward trip to Cuba shines a light on resilient Jewish community

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – Although she has been to Cuba about 10 times, Betsey Freedman’s most recent trip to the Caribbean island was different from any of her other visits.

A native of Mexico, Freedman runs a family foundation for Cuban Jews and for the past six years has been making trips to Santiago, Cuba every few months, helping Cuban Jews to make aliyah to Israel.

But from Feb. 1-9, Freedman and Diane Troderman, both active with the Women’s philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, were among 40 people who went on a mission to Cuba organized by The Forward newspaper. The trip took the participants to the country’s capital of Havana for five days and to Cienfuegos, a town in Central Cuba known as “The Pearl of the South,” inhabited by a small but active Jewish community.

“In all the years I have been going I have never been to Havana,” Freedman said. “This trip was different for me and so amazing.”

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, also went on the trip, serving as scholar-in-residence.

Stavans worked with The Forward to organize the trip and lectured throughout the trip on the history and culture of the Jews of Latin America, specifically those in Cuba, he said. Stavans has visited Cuba several times, the first time in 1982.

With regard to the Cuban Jewish population, Stavans said, “From a hearty 15,000 in 1958, before Fidel Castro’s revolution, it has dwindled to 1,500. Mixed marriages are high and so are conversions. It is a fascinating community that depends, as the famous Tennessee Williams character would put it, ‘on the kindness of strangers.’ And it performs for those strangers — a spectacle that is at times worrisome.”

Rebirth of Judaism

On their first day in Havana, The Forward group visited the city’s Sephardic Center. Later they had dinner with several young Cubans who had participated in Birthright Israel.

cuba center

The United Hebrew Congregation Cemetery (Centro Macabeo Cemetery), established in 1906 by the United Hebrew Congregation of Cuba, has the first Holocaust memorial ever built in the Western Hemisphere.

The next day, they toured a cigar factory and walked around Old Havana. They delved into Jewish Cuban history when they visited El Patronoto, the main synagogue of Havana. They met with the president of the synagogue and other members of the Jewish community to learn about the rebirth of Judaism in Cuba.

“In Havana there is a mikveh and a kosher meat market because there is an Orthodox synagogue there,” Freedman explained.

It seems that women are the leaders of the Cuban Jewish community. One woman, Adela Dworin, heads the Jewish community in Havana.

“I was enormously impressed with the small but viable Jewish communities we met along the way,” Troderman said. “Lifting the ban on religion in 1992 brought forward a number of remarkable women who are committed to the renaissance and renewal of Jewish life. They are my heroines.”

Cuban healthcare was on everyone’s mind when they visited the synagogue’s Patronoto Pharmacy, which serves both the Jewish community and the general community. The group presented donations to the synagogue and the pharmacy. “We all brought 10 pounds of stuff from medicine to clothing to toiletries for the Jewish people,” Freedman said. “Whatever you leave for the people is a blessing.”

The next day, the group went to Cienfuegos, which was founded by French plantation owners who left Louisiana in the early 1800s, and met with members of the Cienfuego Jewish community.

Some members of the group travelled to the city of Trinidada de Cuba, the home of a pregnancy and women’s clinic, run by the local Jewish community and donated more needed items.

Upon returning to Havana, the group toured Ernest Hemingway’s home before   visiting United Hebrew Congregation Centro Macedo de Cuba cemetery. The cemetery has the first Holocaust memorial to be built in the Western Hemisphere.

They went to Shabbat services at the Patronoto Synagogue and enjoyed Shabbat dinner with members of the Jewish community.

“They sing some of the songs differently. So you know the words, but the melodies are different. They also do a lot of clapping during the services,” Freedman laughed.

There are no rabbis living in the community.

“Some rabbis from Chile come every three or four months and they train the people who want to lead the services,” Freedman explained. “And the rabbis come for the main Jewish holidays, Passover and Rosh Hashana.”

cuba betsey & diane

Diane Troderman, left, and Betsey Freedman, enjoying some local flavor in Cuba.

In between visits to Jewish locations, the group learned about general Cuban arts, history and culture, visiting a botanical garden, a crafts festival, markets, art galleries, and viewing a modern dance troupe.

Freedman ventured off to get some of the local flavor of Havana. “Two other people on the trip spoke Spanish. We walked around where the locals are. There are no guns in Cuba so the crime rate is low. You have nothing to worry about.”

Yet things are not completely rosy for the 11 million residents of Cuba. They still face extremely low wages – about $40 per month per family – food rations and dilapidated buildings.

“They are restoring parts of Havana, but it is a very fragile city,” Freedman said. “Three buildings a day fall down since the end of the Soviet Union. But people are starting to restore their apartments. They see that the tourists like that.”

Freedman added that she would like to organize a trip to Cuba for members of the Western Massachusetts Jewish community in the near future.

Ilan Stavans said that American Jews should visit Cuba, “because Jews are curious people, because we’re interested in communities on the fringe, because the topic of survival defines us, because Cuba is only 90 miles away from Miami, and because you want to make it there before the first McDonald’s arrives.”

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