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Around the Jewish World What Embargo? American Jews Take on Needs of Cuban Coreligionists

The B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project has become one of the best-known U.S. religious humanitarian groups working in Cuba today. Its driving force is Stanley Cohen, who has been to Cuba 27 times since establishing the project in 1995.

“Our mission was clear: we wanted to help the Cuban Jewish population survive and grow strong,” Cohen said. “In the first couple of years our goal was to understand the difficulties facing the community. How could the needs of the community be met when little to no money was available, and the average salary of Cubans is below $20 per month?

“The three synagogues in Havana were in disrepair, and then as now there were no rabbis to lead or teach,” he continued. “Obviously there was no hope of raising money from within the Jewish community.”

On the other hand, in 1991 the Castro regime relaxed its opposition to religious practice, and Jews began returning to their roots.

While the island’s 1,500 or so Jews are no wealthier than anyone else in Cuba, they do enjoy certain advantages. One is access to kosher meat, which is guaranteed by the government despite its hostility toward Israel.

Another is the deep interest American Jews have taken in Cuba, through efforts by B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and similar groups.

“In a program that continues to this day, the JDC provides religious teachers from Argentina — usually a young couple — for periods of approximately two years, to assist the community with Jewish ritual and tradition,” Cohen said. “These teachers are based at the main synagogue in Havana, Beth Shalom, and make periodic trips to the synagogues in Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.”

By 1999, Beth Shalom, also known as the Patronato, had been repaired, and many Jews, along with non-Jewish spouses who had converted, began participating for the first time.

In addition, the Orthodox synagogue in Old Havana, Congregacion Adat Israel, has been completely renovated, as has the Centro Sefaradi synagogue in Vedado.

In 2000, B’nai B’rith shipped a container of new medical textbooks worth $500,000 to the University of Havana’s medical school. Due to the embargo, the books couldn’t be shipped to Cuba directly, so they traveled from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to Antwerp, Belgium, and finally to Havana.

The organization also paid to have 280 new wheelchairs shipped from China to Cuba, where they were distributed to hospitals and clinics.

In 2001, B’nai B’rith started its Tzedakah Project with 20 elderly beneficiaries.

“In Cuba, retired persons receive pensions of $10 per month, along with a small food allowance. The Tzedakah Project provides each retiree with an additional $10 a month, bringing their income in line with the average Cuban income. We now have 55 people receiving assistance through this program,” Cohen said. “We are also happy to report that as of this date, 86 children are enrolled in Jewish religious school in Havana.”

According to Cohen, B’nai B’rith Cuba Maimonides Lodge, which for years was inactive, has become the most important Jewish organization in Cuba today, with 85 members.

“Our funding of their activities has encouraged the lodge to be active in all facets of community life,” he said, adding that a monthly community newspaper, Fragmentos, is now published in Spanish.

B’nai B’rith’s most recent mission to Cuba was Dec. 7-15, 2005; it included 25 participants from the United States and two from Israel. During the mission, Pittsburgh synagogue Adat Shalom and the Noznisky family of Union, N.J., each donated a Torah to the isolated Jewish communities of Camaguey and Santa Clara.

“Most of the Cuban attendees had never touched a Torah or even been close to a Torah before,” Cohen said. “The ceremony was extremely emotional because it had been many years since a Torah had been presented to the Cuban Jewish community. The Torahs were hand-carried from their respective cities and one of them even had a seat on the plane.”

In addition, the group brought over 400 pounds of Jewish religious objects, medicines and humanitarian supplies, as well as monetary donations to all the synagogues. The group flew direct on a charter flight from Miami approved by the U.S. Treasury.

One highlight of the mission was a weekend retreat organized by Isaac Rousso, president of the B’nai B’rith lodge. Cohen said 150 people traveled on three buses from Havana to Pinar del Rio for the retreat.

“Each family was given a menorah and candles for Chanukah. In addition, a raffle was held and each person was given an additional piece of Judaica such as a mezuzah, Sabbath candles or a tallit,” he said. “One of our goals is to make sure that each Jewish Cuban family has the necessary religious items” to celebrate all the Jewish holidays.

One mission participants, Harry Rosenzweig, has offered to pay $21,000 to build a synagogue in Santa Clara, which will serve not only the 23 Jews there but also Jewish families in Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus.

If all goes according to plan, this will be the first synagogue — and one of the few houses of worship of any religion — to open in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

Over the years, Cohen estimates that his relief project has taken over $6 million worth of medicine, Judaica and other supplies to Cuba.

“I believe that what we have accomplished in Cuba can be taken to other countries with small Jewish populations to help them survive,” Cohen said. “The most important thing is to provide Jewish education to not only the children, but the adults also. We are committed to the idea that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that ‘to save one person is to save the world.’ “

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