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Emergency Airlift Brings Passover Staples to Cuba’s Jewish Community

Two weeks ago, a small Beechcraft private plane owned by a New Jersey Jewish businessman landed twice in 48 hours on Cuban soil.

The first time, it unloaded a small interfaith delegation of American clergy who had come to assess the needs of religious communities in Cuba. The second time the plane touched down, it arrived with six cases of kosher wine, 20 boxes of shmura matza and enough gefilte fish to feed two community seders held at the Great Synagogue of Havana.

“I called it the mitzvah plane,” explained Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which arranged the delegation’s visit.

Schneier said the group found, upon arrival, that the expected provision of Passover necessities sent annually by the Canadian Jewish Congress had not yet arrived.

The rabbi obtained immediate approval from the Cuban minister of religious affairs, Jose Carneado, to send the plane back to Miami for an emergency pickup of Passover staples. The plane belongs to businessman Jack Rosen, who accompanied the religious delegation.

The mission was accomplished, through Rosen’s auspices, in about 12 hours. Thus was made a small dent in the longtime trade embargo between the United States and Cuba.

For the last five years, Schneier said, the Cuban Jewish community has been unable to obtain kosher wine, having to make do with grape juice. He was shown a bottle of 5-year-old wine, a small amount carefully guarded like a treasure.

This, he said, underscored the significance of the first direct shipment from the United States of Passover food since Fidel Castro came to power.

Schneier described the visit, from March 14 to 17, as the first interfaith delegation to Cuba, whose objective was to “assess on a first-hand basis the church-state relationship, (the extent of) religious freedom and establish an ongoing contact with all religious communities.”

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which aims to “strengthen religious freedom in all denominations worldwide,” also arranges exchange visits of religious leaders and teachers to and from Communist bloc countries. It also has sent prayerbooks to those countries and has supplied kosher food and Passover staples to the Moscow Jewish community.

AN AIRLIFT TO MOSCOW, TOO

On March 18, Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, where Schneier is senior rabbi, sent two tons of kosher food and other Passover supplies to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. The shipment marked the first time that kosher food had been flown directly to the Soviet Union, according to Schneier.

His son, Rabbi Marc Schneier, also of Park East Synagogue, will be conducting Passover services and leading a communal seder at the Choral Synagogue, under an arrangement concluded in January with Konstantin Kharchev, chairman of the Soviet Union’s Council on Religious Affairs.

The younger Schneier will be joined by two cantors from his synagogue, Moshe Geffen and Dr. Joel Seltzer. They will be substituting for the Moscow synagogue’s two regular clergymen, Rabbi Adolph Shayevich and Cantor Vladimir Pliss, both of whom are now enrolled in a study program at Yeshiva University in New York.

The delegation to Cuba met with leaders and congregants of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant denominations. Based on these meetings, the group determined that first and foremost, the Cuban Jewish community must have a rabbi.

DESPERATE NEED FOR RABBI

“What they desperately need,” said Schneier, “is to send in a Spanish-speaking rabbi, and I would appeal to any retired rabbi or any young rabbi who speaks Spanish to render a great service.” The community’s tradition is Orthodox.

There are approximately 1,200 Jews in Cuba today, mainly in Havana, compared to between 12,000 and 15,000 Jews who lived there before the revolution of 1959.

The Havana Jewish community is served by one Sephardic synagogue and two Ashkenazic, of which one, the Great Synagogue, maintains a functioning community center. Dr. Jose Miller serves as president of the “Comunidad Hebrea,” as the community is called.

For worship, the Great Synagogue currently makes use of its chapel, “but the main sanctuary needs major restoration,” said Schneier. He said his group had discussed government assistance for restoration with Carncado, who also agreed to the request for a rabbi.

The Jewish community, said Schneier, has no mohel to perform ritual circumcisions, but does have a shochet, who ritually slaughters cattle every Tuesday for the Jewish community, within the confines of government meat-rationing.

The delegation found what seems to be “a renewed interest in religion” in all religious groups and the appearance of “a deliberate policy to encourage wider contact between religious communities and their co-religionists abroad.”

Although the Communist Cuban government under Castro never outwardly prohibited religious observance or closed places of worship, church-state relations were for a long time chilled, and most religiously observant people did not speak openly of their spiritual wants.

CASTRO’S MOVE TO MEND FENCES

In early 1985, the Cuban government moved to mend its fences with the religious communities, beginning with a highly publicized meeting between Castro and the first group of American Roman Catholic bishops to visit Cuba since he came to power. Shortly thereafter, the government established an Office of Religious Affairs.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation found Castro — who apparently has forsaken his signature cigar smoking — in the same welcoming frame of mind.

Less than 24 hours before the mitzvah plane made its dash for matza, the group had an unusual meeting with Castro, which lasted from 10:40 at night to 2:30 in the morning.

Schneier said that Castro candidly admitted “that at given times in the revolutionary process there was discrimination, but now agreed that religious communities can have a role in contributing to the building of society and of the revolution.”

He said Castro knew about the Jewish community and its need for a rabbi. “He was very agreeable.”

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