Cuban Jewish group on first visit
BY CLIFF CHURGIN
JERUSALEM - The first group of Cuban Jews
to visit Jerusalem under Israel's Birthright program traveled
to the Western Wall on Thursday as part of an effort to strengthen
ties between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
The Birthright program, started three years
ago, arranges 10-day tours for Jews from countries around
the world. The Cuban government has allowed Jewish Cubans
to go to Israel in the past for conferences and conventions,
but this was the first time that a Birthright tour was approved,
said Margalit Bejarano, a Cuba expert at Hebrew University.
William Miller, 27, an electronics instructor
from Havana, said he got the idea for the visit and sent an
e-mail to Birthright to try to set it up.
'All along we knew about Birthright and thought,
`Why don't Cuban Jews take part?' ''
Birthright asked Canadian Jewish groups to
help organize the trip. Lorne Klemensberg of the Canada Israel
Experience said the Canadian and Cuban Jewish communities
have close ties. A Canadian Jewish delegation agreed to sponsor
the Cuban delegation.
It took the Cuban group a month to get government
permission for eight young Cuban Jews to make the trip. Klemensberg
said they had to promise to return to Cuba.
Cuba's Jewish community started with a very
small migration of Jews from the United States to Cuba after
the Spanish-American war. Then more Jews immigrated to Cuba
from Turkey. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews fleeing persecution
arrived in Cuba. By 1959 the community had grown to 15,000.
After Fidel Castro came to power many fled. About 1,200 Jews
live in Cuba today.
Castro broke off relations with Israel in
Some members of the delegation were determined
to bolster Cuban's sympathy for Israel.
''We will go back to Cuba with a feeling,
a knowledge, that we can transmit to other Cubans,'' said
María Luisa Zayán, a 21-year-old journalism
student at Havana University.
The group's visit to the Western Wall coincided
with Tisha B'Av, the day Jews commemorate the destruction
of the First and Second Temples.
As the group made its way to the wall, they
stopped by the remains of the mansions destroyed along with
the Second Temple. Their guide said feuding among Jewish groups
during the time of the Second Temple helped fuel their destruction,
emphasizing the need for unity today.