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Reflections on the Cuba Mission

by Grace Schessler
BQLI Region President

I’ve returned from the Women’s League Mission to Cuba bursting with thoughts to share. We learned, we prayed, we connected, we laughed and we were moved to tears.

The Jewish community in Cuba, once over 15,000 in number, is now barely 10% of that. Yet, they are strong, vibrant and passionately committed to Judaism. There are no rabbis living in Cuba. Rather, the congregations are led by dedicated members of the community who remain optimistic about the future of the Jewish people. During our third synagogue visit, in the small town of Santa Clara, their charismatic, welcoming leader shared a beautiful sentiment through an interpreter. “For me, discovering Judaism is like a first date. I fall in love every time I pray.”

I was deeply moved as our group of 36 from all over the United States gathered closely together to recite Kaddish at the first Holocaust Memorial in the Western Hemisphere located at the Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa, a suburb of Havana. The familiar Jewish names, etched into beautiful marble (all too often cracked) screamed to us ‘we are your history, too.’ So, even though each of us had donated tzedakkah in advance of the mission and had collected and schlepped more than 10 pounds of pharmaceuticals, clothing, school supplies, etc., we felt compelled to collect again to sponsor the repairs of at least four of the dilapidated graves. Through our wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide, Manny Castillo, who has dedicated himself to creating and leading Jewish tours throughout Cuba, we met and connected with Jewish Cubans (affectionately known as Jewbans) all over the island while learning the history of Cuba and its Jewish culture. We look forward to seeing photos of the restored graves soon!

To say our time in Cuba was interesting is a ridiculous understatement. To be able to attend Friday night Shabbat services at Patronato, the largest (Ashkenazi) synagogue in Havana was incredible. And, then, to join the congregation at Centro Sephardi for Saturday morning services put the whole week over the top! Women’s League President Carol Simon was honored with an aliyah as we followed along in our Hebrew/Spanish/Spanish-Transliterated Siddurim.

I’ve learned that no matter where you travel to in the world, when you come together with other Jewish people, you’ve come home. This is an unbelievable feeling, made all the more special for me for having shared it with my daughter, Barrie.

I’ve returned from the Women’s League Mission to Cuba and never have I been more proud to be Jewish!

Click here to see a photo gallery from the trip.