Arriving at the Havana airport is like landing in a new world. A wave of warm air, a winding terminal with fluorescent lighting, and dozens of locals chatting casually as if they’re at a neighborhood coffee shop. Our group of 30 mostly American young Jewish professionals stuck out like sore thumbs, however. We didn’t entirely feel like outsiders, but rather we blended in as energetic Cubans moved us along and out to the busy streets.
We were soon met by our tour guide, Alain, who is JDC’s Cuban tour guide extraordinaire. Though he’s not Jewish himself, his love for history, community, and global connection keeps him tied to the Cuban Jewish family. As a group of JDC Entwine participants, our mission was to explore, learn, and connect with our fellow community members in Havana, and by the end of our short trip, we accomplished our goal and so much more.
Our itinerary was thoughtfully crafted with intimate visits to Jewish sites and iconic sightseeing at Cuba’s cultural landmarks. Our tour began with a stop at a historic cigar factory to understand the economics of Cuba and get a brief history of Havana’s greatest export. ‘What an introduction!’ we all thought as we watched workers artfully roll cigars one by one.
That evening we enjoyed a traditional Cuban dinner in one of Cuba’s famous paladares, diners in people’s homes that allow family members to own private businesses. We enjoyed our meal with several young members of the Jewish community who shared their stories and gave us an insider’s look into life in Havana. Many of us found our conversations with our Cuban counterparts to be a powerful look into daily life on the island, both as a young person and as one of the 1,500 Jews living there.
As we moved into Friday, we were guided through heritage sites and active Jewish landmarks. We began with a meaningful visit to the Jewish cemetery, which is a walkable record of Cuba’s migrant Jewish community, mostly arriving from Europe before the Holocaust.
Our next stop was a tour around the Jewish quarter with Havana’s Rabbi, Samuel Szteinhendler. Though Rabbi Samuel is not Cuban himself, his love and enthusiasm for the community was infectious. One of the greatest highlights for me was walking through the city by foot to get to know its history up close. The contrast of 18th century forts, midcentury homes, and 1950s buildings created an enchanting backdrop as we got to know and feel Havana.
Among the lively streets and classic architecture, we were brought to the Adath Israel synagogue where we learned about the services, events, and children’s programs that serve the observant community in Havana. One of the leaders of the synagogue was so thrilled to see us, she said, “We’re so happy to see you and we’re glad you remembered us.”
Since travel restrictions had been put in place in 2018, it had been seven months since a group had come to visit the community. In so many ways, the Jewish visitors that cross the ocean are a symbol of the larger Jewish family and a reminder to Cubanos that they are not alone.
Continuing our tour through the ageless city, I could not get those words out of my head, “You remembered us.” As we prepared for Shabbat at the Patronato, Havana’s largest and most active synagogue and community center, we met with the energetic Adele Dworin, President of the community. In our introduction with her, we learned about the critical role that JDC has played in the development and sustainability of the Jewish community in Havana and beyond. She emphasized the importance of consistently developing leaders in order to support an independent Cuban Jewish community.
Before giving us hugs and taking pictures, she had one last message to share: “Please come visit again, we are so happy you remembered us.” There it was again. Suddenly our mission had an added layer of comfort and importance.
At the Patronato, we took a tour of the colorful and spacious synagogue to see the JDC-supported computer center, library, and pharmacy. With these resources, the community is able to serve anyone in Havana in need of medication, vitamins, or health suggestions. Being that there hadn’t been a group from the States in some time, we were glad that we could help restock the pharmacy’s supply of medicinal essentials.
That night, we enjoyed a beautiful Shabbat service lead by the community’s youth. Our group was so impressed with the confidence and pride in their leadership. It was clear that this next generation of leaders embodied the vibrance of Cuba and carried a sense of obligation with them. Though it was a first for many of us to experience Shabbat in Spanish, no language barrier could stop us from singing along to Oseh Shalom.
Afterwards, the community ushered us into a dining hall where we enjoyed a delicious Shabbat dinner together like one big family. But we would have a greater sense of appreciation for this dinner because it was only made possible thanks to JDC’s Shabbat Chicken Dinner program. Established in 1995, the program provides a weekly meal to some 400 people following Friday services at three synagogues in Havana as well as surrounding communities. Cuban Jews are able to receive a much-needed source of protein, as the average ration card in Cuba gives a limited amount of meat per individual per month.
We spent our Shabbat morning at the Sephardic Hebrew Center where we were greeted by the community leaders who shared the Sephardic story of the Cuban population. Founded in 1959, the Hebrew center welcomes about 50% of the total community and serves as a cultural hub in the city. Doctora Esther Jequin shared that the once bustling center had thousands of members before nearly 90% of the Jewish community emigrated. “Thank you for coming, it’s a reminder that you haven’t forgotten us,” she confessed. Again, my heart felt heavy with sadness that they felt isolated, but it beamed with joy that we could bring them comfort and connectedness once again.
By that afternoon, we got news that Hurricane Dorian was moving closer to Cuba and Miami, so as a safety precaution the decision was made to end our trip a day early (phew!), and suddenly Saturday became our last day in Cuba, though it ended up being better than we could have imagined. With the schedule shift, we quickly redirected to enjoy one last night with the Cuban community. Our closing experience would be spent bringing in the new week with a havdalah ceremony at the Patronato.
After we sang Shavua Tov — have a good week — we stayed to celebrate the members who completed their conversion programs. Also, there was a farewell ceremony for a family who was set to make aliyah the following month. If we weren’t moved already, we watched multiple dance performances by the children, youth, and seniors that got us out of our seats and joined in to dance salsa.
As we headed to the airport early the next morning, we were definitely saddened that we didn’t have more time to enjoy exhilarating Havana, yet our hearts were full with the knowledge that we connected to the Jewish community in a profound way. Though there are complexities with life in Cuba under a socialist government, the connectedness between the community members and their neighbors around them left a sense of love, pride, and honor for their home.
The immense love and effortless inclusion of the Cuban community is a reminder of just how incredible the power of connection is. As the great Ralph I. Goldman of JDC once said, “There is a single Jewish world intertwined, interconnected.” Oceans or borders apart, we still find an inherent bond between us that we can never forget. May we always make efforts to connect with our global family so that they may always be remembered.