Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mission a Chanukah gift to Cuba

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mission a Chanukah gift to Cuba
by Eric Fingerhut
Staff Writer

Bringing a synagogue its first-ever Torah is not something one gets to do every day.
But a group of two dozen mostly American Jews, including a few from the Washington area, did just that earlier this month, bringing two Torah scrolls to small Jewish communities in Cuba.
"One of the congregants had never touched a Torah before," said Eugene Fogel of the District about the group's presentation of the Torah to the Jews of Santa Clara. "It was quite something."
"It truly brought ... tears to the eyes of people," said Richard Popkin of D.C., recalling the spontaneous dancing and singing that ensued among the 29-member community ‹ which currently meets in someone's house, but is making plans for a new home.
Popkin said the scene even inspired non-Jewish Cubans. As the group celebrated, Popkin walked over to a farmer cutting plants across the street who looked "mesmerized by what was going on."
After fluent Spanish speaker Popkin explained what was happening, the Cuban replied, "How elegant," and blew a kiss.
The Dec. 8-15 trip was the Chanukah mission of the B'nai B'rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, the brainchild of Stanley Cohen ‹ a Pittsburgh resident who has made 27 visits to the island nation during the past decade, most as international chair of the B'nai B'rith effort.
Cohen noted that the Jewish community has been able to practice its religion freely only since the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union fell. In the first three decades of Fidel Castro's reign, religion was suppressed ‹ as it was in most communist countries ‹ although Jews were not persecuted because of their beliefs.
In recent years, the 1,500 Jews of Cuba have started to build a more active Jewish community, but the lack of money in a place where, one trip-goer said, it looks like time "stopped in 1959" doesn't make that easy. As Popkin noted, if a Cuban Jew wants to buy a tallit, for instance, there is no store in Cuba that would sell one.
So Cohen's four or five missions a year bring money and Judaica ‹ along with medicine and other needed supplies ‹ to help that process, with this trip placing a special emphasis on menorot and other Chanukah goods.
A Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington mission to Cuba is slated in early 2006.
Popkin, 56, explained that he became involved in the trip because taking such religious missions has become more complicated in recent years, with the Bush administration having tightened restrictions on visits to Cuba compared with the Clinton administrations more lenient days.
The District lawyer, who works on export licensing issues involving Cuba and other countries as a partner at the D.C. law firm of Swidler Berlin, began doing some pro bono work to help Cohen obtain the needed licenses for his Cuba missions.
"The more I looked, the more inspired I became to do a lot more," he said.
It was Popkin's 24th trip to Cuba, but totally unlike the others.
He noted that the community is still learning about Judaism ‹ for example, many had "no idea" what potato latkes are ‹ but it was a crucial part of their lives.
Judaism "gave these people a sense of dignity and self-respect in an otherwise difficult life," Popkin said.
"They're thriving under incredibly adverse conditions. ... The food is limited, the living conditions are incredibly bad," said Fogel. "We're just doing whatever little bit we can do ‹ the things we bring are an attempt at some semblance of a normal life."
While it may be a difficult life, Cohen noted that such hardship does mean that there is no religious discrimination in Cuba.
"Everybody is about the same [economically], so there is no jealousy," he said.
As for the political situation, Fogel said he avoided talking about the government with those he met "out of respect" for the community, not wanting its members to get in trouble in any way. But he did note that the mission group was free to do what it wished, and was not trailed by government minders.
In addition to visiting the small Jewish communities in various cities around the island, the group attended Shabbat services at the Ashkenazi synagogue ‹ one of the three shuls, along with Sephardi and Orthodox synagogues, in the capital.
Trip participants also distributed supplies that are rare in Cuba, from over-the-counter and other medicines at the Havana Petronato, or Jewish community center, to items such as soap, shampoo and deodorant. Each person on the mission, said Fogel, was required to pack at least 20 pounds of supplies for the community in addition to his or her own luggage.
Another highlight of the trip was joining with one of the mission participants on her first ever trip to her father's grave. The woman, who now lives in Israel, left Cuba with her mother as a very young child in the 1930s, but her father stayed behind, dying soon after his family left. So, almost 70 years after his death, his daughter was finally able to visit him.
Fogel ‹ who is the associate director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Senior Services, but said the mission is unrelated to his job ‹ is what Cohen has dubbed a "Cuba addict," having joined the last three Chanukah Cuba missions.
He said he hopes every American Jew takes the opportunity to visit our neighbor to the south.
"It gives one a great feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction doing something to help the Jewish community," he said. "Everyone who can afford to go ... owes it to themselves and Cuban Jews just to see ... how other Jews cope."
And Popkin said his week with the Jews of Cuba had meant a lot to him.
"To see the joy in the eyes of these people, what the religion meant to them, what our support means to them," he said, "it certainly made me feel closer to [my] religion."

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