Birthright brings first group of Jews from Cuba
By David Halperin

Eight young members of the 1,300-strong Cuban Jewish community toured Israel for three weeks.

After praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Friday night, Maria Luisa, 21, one of the members of the first Cuban Jewish group to visit Israel since Fidel Castro came to power, was overcome with emotion.

"In our synagogue, when we pray and sing L'cha Dodi we are looking to Jerusalem, and now I'm here," she said. "It's just amazing to be here."

William Miller, 27, one of the leaders of Cuba's Jewish youth movement, Maccabi Cuba, said many of the members of the group were tearful as their flight landed in Tel Aviv. "It was a big dream to come to Israel," he said, "It is something special to make this dream a reality."

The group came here earlier this month on Birthright Israel, an organization partly funded by the Israeli government, which brings Jewish young adults, from around the world, to Israel on free trips as their "birthright." They return to Cuba tomorrow.

At Birthright Israel's "Mega Event" in Jerusalem last week, several members of the Cuban delegation said they were again brought to tears to see the Cuban flag waving next to the flags of the other 20 countries touring Israel this summer.

"For me to see the Cuban flag in Jerusalem was something incredible," said Miller. "There were 3,000 people there [at the Mega Event], and the Cuban flag was waving because of us 10 Cubans."

Before the Castro led revolution in 1959, there were 15,000 Jews living in Cuba, 75 percent of them in the capital city of Havana. Today, the community consists of just 1,300 Jews, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Cuba severed diplomatic ties with Israel following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the early 1990s Cuba accepted religious practice, after previously prohibiting any public expressions of religion. There are currently five synagogues in Cuba, three of them in Havana.

According to Miller, until the 1990s it was "socially unacceptable" to publicly practice any religion. Because Jewish practices were thus restricted to the privacy of one's home, many traditions were lost. Miller said, he once could have had a Jewish neighbor and not known it.

"We spent nearly 40 years without Jewish life in Cuba," Miller said. "Now we are starting to rebuild the Jewish community, and this trip is helping to do that." Miller's father has emigrated to Canada, but his grandfather has stayed in Cuba and is the current president of the Jewish Community there.

Maria Luisa, president of Maccabi Cuba, describes Cuba's Jewish community as "reborn." There are no rabbis in Cuba, she notes, and Shabbat services are conducted by members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The group's eight participants, aged 18 to 26, are all members of Maccabi Cuba, a youth movement with 150 members aged 13 to 30, which conducts many traditional and cultural Jewish activities, including helping to organize Shabbat services and organizing an Israeli dancing club.

"The young people are the strength of the Jewish community in Cuba," explains Luisa, a journalism student who also works as a religious schoolteacher.

Annette Eli, 22, a participant in Maccabi Cuba's 15-member Israeli dancing club, says the club learns many of its dances by watching Israeli videotapes. She says that despite Jews being a small minority in Cuba, they have not experienced any anti-Semitism. "We don't have anti-Semitism in Cuba. Cubans don't know about Judaism." She describes the group's visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Tisha b'Av as the "most spiritual part" of the trip, and a visit to Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Va'shem as, "very emotional."

The United Israel Appeal of Canada, an umbrella organization for Canada's many Jewish federations, is largely funding the trip. Thirty Canadians and ten Israelis accompanied the Cubans for the majority of the trip. Birthright Israel and the Canada Israel Experience, a division of the UIA of Canada, designed the trip activities.

"We want [the Cubans] to build bridges with our young people and create relationships while they travel in Israel together," explains Lorne Klenensberg, Director of Israel Programs for the Canada Israel Experience, adding that he hopes to expand the program and bring more Cubans in the future. According to Klenensberg, the U.S. embargo of Cuba has led to closer ties between the Cuban and Canadian Jewish communities.

Miller explains that when Cubans seek to immigrate to Israel they must contact the Canadian embassy in order to fill out the proper forms from the Jewish Agency. He describes the Canadian embassy as representing "Israel's immigration interests" in Cuba, adding that the Cuban community receives items such as kosher for Passover products from Canadian Jewish organizations.

Last week, while staying at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, the group performed traditional Cuban songs and dances for the Canadian participants.

"Their form of Judaism and culture gives us a perspective on how they live both as Cubans and Jews," said Kirill Zaretsky, 26, from Toronto. "Given their political situation and the difficulty to practice Judaism, they still maintain a strong Jewish community."

Members of the Cuban delegation denied reports published last week that the group had come to Israel "after a year of tough negotiations," and that the Cuban government had demanded that two leaders of Cuba's Jewish community accompany the group, "to ensure that all

Miller, who was responsible for organizing the group's departure from Cuba, said that he needed to describe the group's intentions to the Cuban government to receive permission to leave the country. He said government officials "were interested in the program," and described the Cuban government as "understanding."

"They understood our reasons for wanting to come to Israel," said Miller. "We have to thank the government."

Miller said he originally contacted Birthright Israel officials in February about a possible visit, and, after notifying the Cuban government of their intentions in April, the group "had everything ready in less than two months." Miller denied that he and David Tacher, president of the Jewish Community of Cuba in Santa Clara, came to Israel with the group to ensure that they all return home. He said the Cuban Jewish community decided to bring Tacher on the trip in order "to have a proper delegation." Only one Cuban participant is under the age of 18, Miller explained that under Cuban law minors must be accompanied by a parent or guardian when travelling abroad.

Despite meeting with a group of Cuban immigrants in Israel at the beginning of their trip, members of the Cuban delegation emphasized that the trip was not meant to promote immigration to Israel. "Our mission is to have an experience here in Israel and to share that experience with others in Cuba," said Miller. "Right now it is more important to rebuild the Jewish community in Cuba than to make aliyah."

According to Gidi Mark, international director of marketing for Birthright Israel, the Cuban delegation represents the first touring group from a country that does not have relations with Israel. He expressed confidence that this "will not be the last group from Cuba". He added that groups from Venezuela, Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland and the Czech Republic have also come to Israel for the first time this summer.