ORT Chile Director visit to Cuba
by: Marcelo Lewkow.

Marcelo Lewkow, Director of ORT Chile recently paid a working visit to ORT Cuba where he spent time with its director, William Miller, exchanging ideas and experiences. In a moving first-person account he tells of the important work ORT does for the active Cuban Jewish community of 1,300 people.

Out there, it is a hot, humid, very typical Monday afternoon in La Havana, Cuba, but in here, sitting right next to me, the image of my late grandfather is smiling and telling me in his warm Yiddish, "You see, Meier, as I told you, no matter how far away you are, or how strange the society you are visiting may be, there will be always a synagogue, always a Yom Kippur, a Kol Nidrei , always a fellow Jew, and you will always feel safe and at home".

On this occasion the strange society is the tropical version of a revolutionary regime, in the very well known island of Cuba.

This time, the synagogue is the Great Synagogue Beth Shalom of El Vedado, La Havana, reopened and refurbished to its simple yet touching beauty, by the joint efforts of the international Jewish community, and the brave local leadership.

This time the fellow Jew who makes me feel safe and at home is my colleague, William Miller, Director of ORT Cuba.

I came to Havana to learn more about ORT's important work in Cuba, and, on behalf of World ORT, to see what assistance we could offer. But, as is the norm when ORT is involved, at the end of my visit, I was in fact the one who was helped.

Helped spiritually and touched emotionally by the efforts of the Cuban Jewish community.

Helped in terms of my community experience by seeing the mutual cooperation of ORT and so many international Jewish organisations, working together and understanding the precise needs of this very special community.

Helped in terms of my professional experience, by seeing firsthand how such a small community organises important social improvement projects such as providing free medication, arranging for a Pesach movil to visit each and every lone Jew on the Island to distribute Pesach food and prayers. In terms of technical training ORT Cuba has built one of the most outstanding technical training institutions in the country.

ORT plays a very important role in providing technical education and it was my duty, while in Cuba, to offer my assistance to improve this. After only a few days in Le Havana however, I discovered that ORT Cuba has already accomplished a huge amount. I also realised that under the present circumstances in Cuba, even the smallest amount of help could make such a difference.

I learnt so much from talking to ORT students who demonstrated how important a role ORT plays in their lives:

"ORT trains me in 3D design and was in fact the only non-governmental training institution to offer this subject", explained a young engineer.

"I never imagined being able to use a computer, but ORT is helping me cope with modern technology, I never dreamed of understanding", enthused a grandfather who participated in ORT activities 50 years ago when the local Jewish community reached a peak of some 15,000 members.

"ORT gave me the opportunity to learn computer literacy," I was told by a young fashion model. "In my line of work we do not study such subjects and without ORT I would never have been given this chance."

"Through ORT's Sunday classes in Judaism, and well-stocked resource centre of Jewish educational materials and software, we are enriching our Jewish knowledge. We are being given the tools to teach Jewish topics in a more modern and entertaining way," stated a teacher teaching Jewish Studies at a JDC Sunday school.

At the end of my visit, I felt that the word 'communication' came out as a synthesis of the needs of the Cuban Jewish community and ORT Cuba.

Too often, in our modern world globalization puts sophisticated communication tools in the hands of disadvantaged people all over the world. But more often than not the lack of education, or of motivation, makes the investment a waste of time, money and effort, leading to frustration and increased isolation.

I spent only a few days in La Havana. But during that time I held long, warm, intellectually challenging conversations with my colleague William; the president of the Cuban Jewish community, Jose Miller; and the JDC representative in Cuba, Nestor Szewach. I listened to ORT teachers and students and was touched by their enthusiasm, their culture and education. I can now say, in all honesty, that to help the tiny Jewish communities of Cuba to communicate with each other and with the outside Jewish world could mean a world of difference or, shall I say, a World ORT of difference.



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