A visit to Cuba
Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 10:00 am | Updated: 10:16 am, Thu Mar
LEISAH WOLDOFF Managing Editor
Members of Congregation Or Chadash participate in many social action
projects throughout the year, but this month, the Conservative
congregation took its tikkun olam to an international level with a
humanitarian mission to Cuba.
During the weeks before the March 3-11 trip, Or Chadash collected
medical, school and religious supplies; each of the 37 mission
participants could pack about 15-20 pounds of these items to take to
Cuba's Jewish communities. The synagogue also collected cash gifts.
Dedication to tikkun olamat Or Chadash "is really strong and there are a
lot of people who are very passionate about it," says the Scottsdale
synagogue's Cantor Melissa Berman. "To have the opportunity to do
something for another community was something that people were really
Gifts included medication, medical supplies, clothing, tallitot, seder
plates, children's books, Spanish-Hebrew siddurim and baseballs.
"The kids go crazy over baseballs," says Rabbi Micah Caplan, Or
Chadash's spiritual leader, who traveled to Cuba with his 13-year-old
Or Chadash's mission, organized by World Passage and led by tour guide
Manny Castillo, included visits to two Jewish communities in Havana — El
Patronato and the city's Sephardic synagogue — as well as Jewish
communities in Santa Clara and Cienfuegos.
Participants met with Cuban Jews -— communicating primarily through
translators — and celebrated Shabbat at El Patronato, Havana's largest
synagogue, where Caplan and Berman led the Saturday morning Torah
service. "It was an honor for both of us," Berman says.
The group also visited two Holocaust memorials. The one in a cemetery in
Guanabacoa, in East Havana, is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere,
Caplan says, and is especially poignant because it is also a burial
place. A plaque, written in Spanish, states that several bars of soap
made from the body fat of Holocaust victims are buried there. "Peace to
their remains," the plaque reads. Saying Kaddish there was a highlight
for Caplan because it gave him the opportunity "to stand there and
The group also recited Kaddish at a Holocaust memorial in Santa Clara,
at the city's Jewish cemetery.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died on March 5, the Cuban
government declared two days of mourning, Caplan says, with flags flying
at half-mast and no music in public places, a stark contrast to the
music heard regularly in public areas on other days.
Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, as many as 15,000 Jews lived in
Cuba, Caplan says; today there are an estimated 1,200-1,300.
None of the country's synagogues have rabbis, but visiting rabbis from
Latin America officiate at lifecycle events, says Naomi Goodell, an Or
Chadash member who helped organize the trip.
Members of Cuba's Jewish community "are so proud of being Jewish," says
Goodell. "For me, the most moving time was Saturday morning services, as
we watched participants march with the Torahs."
A highlight for Berman was recognizing commonalities between American
and Cuban Jews. She was also impressed with the passion that community
members had for sustaining Judaism in Cuba.
Caplan says his visit to Cuba made him proud to be an American Jew and
to know that his connection to other Jews is the same wherever they live.
"They sing the Shema the same way, they put their arms around each other
for 'Oseh Shalom' the same way," he says. "They take the Torah out, and
it's the same words. So even though society and economics and other
things, such as politics, are much different, there's still something
that links us all as human beings to each other."