TEL AVIV, Aug. 18 (JTA) For many travelers, the threat of terrorism is a compelling reason to stay away from Israel. For Maria Louisa Zayon, it was a compelling reason to visit. “In Israel now it’s a very hard time,” says the 21-year journalism student from Havana, Cuba. “I think it’s very important that people like us come to be together with Israel.” By “people like us,” Zayon means the eight Cuban Jewish youths on the birthright israel program, the first organized group from Cuba to visit Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On Sunday, the participants finished a 10-day tour on birthright, which provides free trips for Jewish youths aged 18 to 26 who have never visited Israel on a peer tour. They were accompanied by William Miller, director of ORT-Cuba and a counselor for the trip, and David Tasher, a board member of the organized Cuban Jewish community. “We came here to build bridges between Cuba and Israel,” Miller said, “to bring Jewish youth closer to Israel, to see a little more about the reality here.” Cuban Jews, he says, know of Israel only through the Torah or through contemporary books and magazines. “To see the history behind us, in front of us, to see Judaism before us, to see the Torah in front of us, living, was something incredible,” he said. Delegations from Switzerland, Bulgaria and Venezuela also took part in birthright for the first time this summer. In all, some 8,500 youths are expected to visit Israel on birthright this summer a 70 percent increase over last summer and 15,000 for the year. Some 48,000 young Jews from 34 countries have taken part in birthright since the program began in 1999. Cuba and Israel have not had diplomatic ties since Cuban President Fidel Castro broke them just before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Castro offered training and support to PLO guerillas over the years and was an ally of such anti-Israel figures as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Still, Cuba began allowing its Jews to emigrate in 1994 for a fee, paid by the Jewish state. By 2000, some 500 Cuban Jews had reached Israel under the behind-the-scenes arrangement, known as Operation Cigar. For most of those who remained in Cuba, however, a trip to Israel was out of the question until birthright came along. One of the most memorable birthright experiences for the Cuban group was standing at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, “seeing all the different Jewish people all together, seeing everyone and being part of this also,” Miller said. Annette Eli, 22, said another powerful moment was landing at Ben Gurion Airport. “For the first time we saw the Land of Israel, we had an aerial view of Tel Aviv,” she said. “We were very emotional.” “The kids were all crying,” Miller said. Rosa Delgado, 23, was especially excited about the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, where she was able to learn about the Jewish community of Turkey where her family has roots and about Jewish communities in South America. The Cuban participants “were very excited and emotional” during the trip, said Tal Somech, the security guard who accompanied them. “They said that it was the most beautiful 10 days of their lives.” The youngsters intend to bring their positive memories back to Cuba, telling people what Israel was like. “The program has made every single one of its participants the best ambassador Israel could possibly have in his or her respective country of origin,” Natan Sharansky, Cabinet minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs and chair of birthright israel’s steering committee, said in a news release. Not only has the program increased the number of Jewish youths with personal experience in Israel, but it has boosted Israel’s tourism industry during an economic crisis. “Birthright israel has made an important contribution to both local tourism and the long-term strengthening of Zionist roots amongst Diaspora youth,” Avi Ellah, president of the Israel Hotel Association, said in a recent statement. The various birthright groups met up in Jerusalem on Aug. 12 for a gala celebration that included appearances by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and birthright israel funders such as Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. As each country represented was announced, that delegation raised its country’s flag. When the Cuban flag was displayed, the Cuban representatives became teary-eyed. “We are the pioneers in this kind of experience,” Zayon said proudly, “because after us, other groups of young Jewish people can come from Cuba. And we want that to happen.” Organizing this first trip took a lot of effort, Miller said. After finding out about the program on the Internet, Miller contacted birthright israel offices in Jerusalem. He then arranged sponsorships from Canadian Jewish federations. With a letter of invitation in hand showing that the trip would be fully funded by outside sources, Miller approached Cuban government officials. “We explained to the government our reasons why it’s important for Jewish people to come to Israel,” said Miller, who had to explain the Jews’ historical and religious connection to the land. “They understood.” “Now the land of Israel, the Holy Land, is nearer to us,” Zayon said. “We always heard about Israel, the land of our forefathers and foremothers, but now it’s reality for us. We are actually in Israel. It’s amazing.”
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