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Steps to Jewish life

Participants on the mission to Cuba pose before Havana’s Patronato Synagogue

Image: Bill Young

Lily Kohn’s Jewish journey is a story to which many in the Puget Sound region can relate. A retired Microsoft employee living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, she grew up feeling little connection to her Jewish heritage.

“We went to a Conservative temple where everything was in Hebrew. I didn’t understand anything that was going on and was just bored to tears. I also had to go to Sunday school and confirmation class until I was 16. I didn’t connect with any of it,” Kohn, 61, says. “I would identify as culturally Jewish, but it wasn’t really an important part of my life.”

Several years ago, Kohn began rediscovering her roots through family research and attending a Reform synagogue. This spring, a Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle–sponsored trip to Cuba helped to solidify for Kohn a spiritual connection to Jews around the world.

“In spite of the cultural and language differences, it brought me closer to the Jewish community worldwide. We’re more alike than different,” Kohn says about the five-day Mission to Jewish Cuba that took place on March 25–29. “The experience and immersion was really special.”

The Federation is hoping to connect Jews in the Puget Sound region to Jewish communities around the globe in the same meaningful way through missions to Jewish communities in other countries. As part of its World Jewry focus, the Federation is partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to organize one to two missions a year.

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A menorah sculpture in  Havana’s old Jewish quarter

Image: Bill Young

“Being Jewish is about more than your neighborhood, your synagogue, your city, your state, or even your country. It’s really being a part of a global peoplehood,” says Keith Dvorchik, the Federation’s president and CEO. “It’s important to make sure that we’re connecting with the entire Jewish community, not just locally, but all around the world.”

The value of connecting Jewish communities globally was the primary message the Federation used in recruiting participants and educating them on what to expect from traveling to Cuba. The Federation and JDC worked together to develop and implement the itinerary, which included touring Havana’s Jewish Quarter, synagogues, and the Guanabacoa Jewish Cemetery, which houses the first Holocaust memorial erected in the Western Hemisphere.

“People go to Cuba with a lot of preconceived notions,” says Michael Novick, the JDC’s executive director of strategic development. “When they leave Cuba, even after just a few days, from a Jewish perspective, they’ve had their socks blown off.”

The Mission to Jewish Cuba brought its mostly Seattle-area visitors to a small but thriving community that has revived Jewish life in a country that was officially an atheist state from 1959 until 1991. During that period, Jews could not practice their religion in public. The ones who did were politically ostracized.

“[After the revolution], there were only a handful of Jews that were practicing the religion and keeping the synagogues open, and they were second-class citizens,” said Helene Behar, owner of the Behar Company and the Federation’s treasurer. “They weren’t allowed to vote for the one party or go to university. They gave up a lot, but they thought that it was important to have those places for people to go.”

Ninety percent of Cuba’s Jews — approximately 13,500 people — left the country after the 1959 Communist revolution. Jewish institutions and life fell into disrepair. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jews in Cuba.

Helping rebuild and support Jewish communities like Cuba’s through its Israel and World Jewry programs are high priorities for the Federation. For fiscal year 2016, the Federation allocated $732,178 in funds for Israel and World Jewry, including unrestricted funds sent to the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), as well as human services in Israel and overseas communities.

“In a lot of these countries, the dollars that we raise are what impacts them. It’s what allows Jewish life to grow and flourish,” Dvorchik says. “I believe that we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters around the world. These trips allow us to see the direct impact.”

Rebuilding Jewish Cuba started in 1991 when the president of the Cuban Jewish community, Dr. José Miller, asked the JDC to assist in bringing the community back to life after the government lifted the prohibition on organized religion. From the summer of 1994 until April 2014, the JDC sent Argentine representatives on long-term assignments to help revitalize crumbling Jewish infrastructure — physically, spiritually, and psychologically.

“We’ve been able to recapture a population that was otherwise lost to the Jewish people,” Novick says. “I think the revitalization of Jewish Cuba is one of the greatest stories, often untold, in modern Jewish times.”

In the last 22 years, with the help of the JDC as well as funds raised by the Federation and other nonprofit organizations, the Cuban Jewish community has renovated three synagogues — Ashkenazi Orthodox, Sephardic Orthodox, and Conservative — and started running programs and services. Even though they still do not have an in-residence rabbi, they are able to pay for some staff, like an educational director.

“That’s one piece of the puzzle. They’ve made it in terms of self-reliance, but they still need our help financially in order to sustain these programs and be able to grow,” Novick says. Many Cubans make a mere $30 a month.

There are several welfare and social services programs that the Israel and World Jewry programs support, including transportation, special food shipments, Shabbat dinners, and pharmacies.

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Lion of Cuba

The entrance to the Patronato Synagogue

Image: Courtesy JDC

The pharmacy in the Patronato Synagogue “is one of the most active in Havana and dispenses medications for free, not only to Jews, but also on a nonsectarian basis to those in greatest need,” Novick adds.

The 13 people on the Federation’s trip to Cuba — seven from the Seattle area, two from Connecticut, and four from Philadelphia (but with Seattle roots) — brought clothes and medication to stock in the pharmacy. For Kohn, it was one of the most impactful experiences of the trip.

“You could really see in a very finite way how we helped others,” Kohn says. “That’s part of Judaism, trying to make the world a better place.” It was during a Shabbat service that Kohn felt a deep connection to the global Jewish community.

“Being in a Shabbat service in Cuba really made it come to life that Jews all over the world are having the same or similar service, and it brings us together,” Kohn said. “It just really put me amongst a worldwide congregation celebrating Shabbat. It was such an amazing feeling of worldwide community.”

That sense of global connection to Judaism is precisely the point of overseas missions, according to Dvorchik. “Israel and World Jewry is a core piece of who we are and what we do, both in terms of the
personal connections as well as providing the funds so that communities can begin to grow and thrive and flourish,” he says.

As part of the trip, the group gave tzedakah (charity) at each Jewish site they visited. In addition, members of the group also donated thousands of dollars in tzedakah toward various Cuban Jewish institutions and programs, like Adath Israel synagogue, the Sephardic Hebrew Center of Cuba and the Guanabacoa Jewish Cemetery.

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