Andrew Frank’s recent trip to Cuba was for him more than “fascinating” and “exotic.” The four days the executive director of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks spent in Havana last month showed him “a great example of where federation dollars created a clear and lasting change for the better. “
Frank and 33 other people from New York and New Jersey traveled to the island nation April 18-21 on a mission sponsored by the federation. Participants met with members of Cuba’s Jewish community and viewed projects supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with allocations from Jewish federations across North America.
That support, said Frank in a May 24 phone interview, “transformed the Jewish community in Cuba from where it was in 1991,” when the collapse of Soviet subsidies led to widespread poverty and the JDC was allowed to reenter the community.
“We made a difference — not only Princeton Mercer Bucks but 156 federations throughout the country, as well as individual synagogues and communities from the United States and Canada. We all contributed to the Cuban Jewish community, providing it with resources to the point where that community is a fully engaged Jewish community,” he added.
To aid the locals, group members brought along such needed items as clothes and medical supplies that had been donated.
Among the mission stops was the Patronato, Havana’s Masorti, or Conservative, congregation, where the visitors attended a Shabbat service.
“I don’t know how many people sitting in the congregation were 100 percent Jewish or 10 percent Jewish or 5 percent Jewish, but it was well-attended, and they were involved in the Jewish community in a way that was meaningful to them,” said Karen Anderson, a Lawrenceville resident who is vice president of the federation’s UJA Campaign.
“The question of who is Jewish is not important to them,” said Frank. “There are many people who identify with the Jewish community who are probably intermarried, but that is not important. They interact on a regular basis with non-Jews.”
“We really got to know people in our community, to see where federation dollars go, and to see young Cuban Jews leading a service,” said Gary Smotrich of Hopewell, a member of the PMB federation’s executive committee who cochaired the mission with Anderson.
The group learned that there is a stable population of about 1,000 Jews in Havana and another 500 outside the city.
“There are no rabbis, but people take it upon themselves to run the services,” Smotrich told NJJN. “The young people are leaving by getting Israeli passports.
“It is nonetheless a very vibrant community,” and, he added, “nobody talked about anti-Semitism.”
Anderson was impressed by “how sharp the people we interacted with were. Most of them have never been out of Cuba, but they seem to know what is going on in the rest of the world. They are not living in a bubble.”
Frank found the Cubans to be “a warm and friendly people.”
Smotrich called the experience “tremendous. Just seeing the country — getting off the plane and seeing the billboards of Che Guevara and the ’56 Chevys in the parking lot. It’s a time warp.”