by Sara Bistrow Smith, Director of EntryPointDC
I just returned from leading an extraordinary Jewish mission to Cuba sponsored by EntryPointDC with 14 other young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s who live in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. The combination of these intelligent, adventurous, and compassionate participants with the charming and complex backdrop of Cuba made this one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
On our trip we visited five Jewish communities and met their leaders, got to know their members and learned how they live and practice Judaism in Cuba. We visited synagogues, cleaned up graves in Jewish cemeteries, and distributed much needed supplies. We took in the sights and immersed ourselves in Cuban culture. We also spent much of our time with members of the young adult Jewish Cuban community, and we saw historic and educational sites together, socialized on Havana’s seafront promenade the Malecon, and sang and danced to Cuban music. Having exceeded all expectations, the trip was more wonderful than we could have imagined.
Cuba is a fascinating country—a place of passionate music, lively dance and vibrant color. It is a living museum, filled with old American cars from the 50’s, apartment buildings from the 70’s and stunning Colonial, Baroque and Art Deco architecture. Music is everywhere and seems to be the soul of the island. Even though poverty is quite widespread, the Cubans we encountered were outgoing, social, and warm. They knew how to have a good time and keep spirits high.
While we had many experiences that were incredible on the trip, one of the most memorable was visiting the Jewish Sunday School in Havana. The children smiled with delight when our group arrived with several bags of American candies and chocolates. Many of the children did not speak English, but we found a way to communicate through dancing. Each child approached us and said “bailar” and they taught us the hippo song, which continued to be a favorite song amongst our group. Then we taught the children the song, David Melech Yisrael.
Since travel is only legally permissible under specific licensees granted by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office, the Washington DCJCC obtained a license which allows travel by members of religious organizations to conduct religious activities. This is the first time that the JCC has ever sponsored a mission to Cuba for young professionals to bring support and aid to the Cuban Jewish community. These young professionals were incredibly generous and brought ample supplies of over-the-counter-medicines, powdered milk, films pertaining to Jewish life, sun block, and clothes, all of which are difficult to come by in Cuba.
There were over 20,000 Jews in Cuba before the Revolution in 1959, and now only about 1,500 remain. Although this Jewish community is small in number, their pride, joyfulness, and spirit is undiminished. We had the privilege to witness the strength and heart of this community firsthand and learned that the value of a Jewish community is not measured by its population, but by the determination and passion of its individuals to continue and celebrate the Jewish way of life. Our trip to Cuba touched my life in so many ways: I made lasting friendships, built connections with the extraordinary Jewish community, and experienced the rich, lively culture and traditions of Cuba.