St. Louis Leaders Get a Rare Look at Cuba on Jewish Federation Mission

Twenty-eight St. Louis Jewish community leaders and professionals had an eye-opening four-day experience interacting with a small and thriving Cuban Jewish community. The purpose was to give participants a close look at what St. Louisans do for Jews in other countries.

This first-ever Jewish Federation of St. Louis Cuba mission was the brainchild of Julie Stern, a member of the National Young Leaders Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). The trip was organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a Federation international beneficiary that is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. “This mission was extraordinary. Cuba is a country Americans cannot typically visit,” said Stern. Group members said they saw a population that takes great pride in its country, despite appalling living conditions. There is also an absence of anti-Semitism in Cuba.

To put the Jewish community in the proper context, Ruth Lederman, Jewish Federation Vice President and Development Director, described Cuba as a country of contrasts. “The infrastructure is crumbling. Magnificent old buildings are in disrepair. Food is rationed and children go to school hungry. There’s a 99% literacy rate but no jobs — or chance to move up in society. Medical care is free, but there are limited supplies and few doctors. In fact, doctors are Cuba’s 4th largest export, sent to other countries to practice and send money back to Cuba.”

Mission participant Maurice Quiroga, Vice President & Managing Director of PNC Wealth Management said, “Although a poor community, the beauty of Cuba is not just in the landscape, but in the culture, its people and their passion for continuing to go on each day despite the kind of life and government they live with and the dearth of basics Americans take for granted.”

Equally impressed with the strength of the people, despite harsh conditions, was Wendy Jaffe, Executive Director of the Trio Foundation. “I was shocked to find out how little food is rationed – 3/4ths of a pound of meat per person a month.” This includes chicken and pork. In lieu of pork, Jews receive beef. There is a person specially trained to do the ritual slaughter [a shochet].

After the revolution in 1959, religion was banned. Most Cuban Jews left. The population dwindled. However, in 1991, Cuba became a secular state with greater religious freedoms. JDC began working with the community. The story of its resurgence is a textbook case of Jews helping Jews no matter where they live. Lederman gives JDC full credit for making it possible for Cuban Jews to make a come-back. “This typifies how JDC and the Federation movement work together as a lifeline to help Jews worldwide,” said Lederman.

Pride and spirit are palpable in Cuba’s Jewish community. Today, Cuba’s 1,500 Jews are free to practice their religion. Although an anti-Zionist and anti-American country of 11 million people, Cuban Jews are allowed to make aliyah to Israel through any country — but the U.S. There are three synagogues of different sects. “Cuban Judaism is flexible and the labels of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are not rigid,” said Lederman. Jewish traditions thrive — kids have bar and bat mitzvahs, there are group Shabbat chicken dinners, 150 Jewish kids and adults take Jewish education classes.

JDC’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project stocks the pharmacy shelves at the Patranto Jewish Community Center and Synagogue. In addition, there are several other JDC programs providing support to the community. “After the trip, we decided as a group to raise money for the Special Food Shipments to the Cuban community,” said Stern. JDC purchases food packages and works with other groups and Jewish communities in Latin America to distribute kosher food on holidays and other occasions.

Stern summed up the experience. “Jews in Cuba are part of who we are and part of our tradition. It’s important to support them. That really resonated. I won’t ever forget this trip.”


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