Helping Cuban Jewish community thrive
Canadian Friends of Cuban Jewry organization helps small Jewish community with daily needs of Jewish life, including shipping in kosher supplies, distributing tefillin, running Jewish summer camp, and performing circumcisions
With the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Cuba’s small Jewish community faced a great struggle to survive due to the island’s poverty compounded by the loss of billions of dollars the Castro government had received from the USSR.
Enter Canadian Friends of Cuban Jewry (CFCJ), which was founded in the spirit of “Ahavas Yisroel” (love your fellow Jew). Since the early ‘90s, the organization, also known as Chabad Friends of Cuban Jewry, has been actively engaged with the community in Cuba, a unique relationship that has helped the community flourish. Though estimates vary, CFCJ’s Rabbi Shimon Eisenbach put the community’s size at around 1,000 people, adding that Jews live in 22 different towns and cities on the island, with a significant number in Havana. There are also Jews from other countries living in the capital, including Israelis and others who run businesses.
Unlike the aid that the Cuban community receives on holidays from other Jewish agencies, mainly consisting of kosher food and supplies, CFCJ has a year-round presence in Cuba, with its Spanish-speaking emissaries spending extended periods on the island, interacting with the Jewish community to help with day to day needs of Jewish life, including shipping in kosher supplies from Canada and organizing holiday celebrations. They have also celebrated marriages and bar mitzvahs. They recently had an inauguration of a sefer torah.
For Pesach, they distribute thousands of shmurah matzahs and wine and hold public seders, lead by their emissaries.
‘Authentic Jewish education’
The community receives an “authentic Jewish education,” said Eisenbach.
“Because of the difficult situation, we’re not only there to help them spiritually but physically as well, which is an equal mitzvah of the Torah,” he said. “This is an organization which is here to help from A to Z.”
To help the community there learn about their roots, a guidebook was put together. Originally called “Para Ninios Judios” (“For Jewish Children”), it is now also entitled “Y Para Grandes Tambien” (“For Grown Ups Too”) because parents also find it very informative.
Since its inception, the organization has made 130 visits to Cuba, bringing containers of kosher food, clothing and medicine (even Tylenol is hard to come by in today’s Cuba). They also distribute tefillin, siddurim and machzorim, and help with putting mezuzahs on the doors of Jewish homes. They have created three libraries so Jews there can learn about their culture and background. They perform circumcisions for those who never had them at the correct time.
“You see the necessity, the mitzvah becomes bigger,” said Eisenbach. “Our guys are there for a mission, for a goal, a greater satisfaction is that they can walk out of a house and hear, ‘Yes, you’ve pulled us through for a little while, with the food and encouragement you gave us.’”
They recently purchased a $6,000 electric wheelchair that they delivered to a man so that he could become mobile and self-reliant again.
Eisenbach told Shalom Life that the community – it numbered as high as 17,000 before Castro came to power and included an additional 25,000 Jews in transit to the US and other countries for a period of four years after the Holocaust – is going through a hard time but not because of anti-Semitism, which he said is not a problem in Cuba.
“There’s no real anti-Semitism against Jews per se there. Generally the situation is difficult but it’s not because they’re Jewish,” he said. “We are not deterred by the difficulties of the Jewish community there. The more the necessity the more the CFCJ is encouraged to do more.”
Summer camp for Jewish kids
CFCJ also runs a popular summer camp for Jewish children and their families. Eisenbach said that the children get enormous pleasure from even the small things that the camp can provide. For instance, they travel to the camp in an air conditioned tourist bus, which is not something the average Cuban has access to – buses on the island are old fashioned and without modern luxuries.
“Many times the parents come along in the summertime. We feed them and their family lunches which they don’t have around the year, kosher meals, ketchup, potato chips. The kids look forward to camp, literally a whole year. We give them the best of time.”
The camp is only part of their program to teach Cuba’s Jewish children about their heritage. There is also a placement program abroad; many children travel to Argentina to study for periods of about a month to “enhance their Jewish studies.”
Eisenbach said that some of those who participated in the placement program became religious while some didn’t. However, most decided to stay in Argentina, where the Jewish community is much stronger, while regularly visiting their family and friends back in Cuba.
Eisenbach said the objective of the program is twofold. Besides education, “We saved them from inevitable intermarriage. Most of these boys and girls we (originally) met with their non-Jewish counterparts.”
However, when it comes to humanitarian aid, “We don’t differentiate between a Jew and non-Jew. I would love to help every one of the millions of people who need help on the island.”