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Photo of participants: Winnipeg’s Val Benevet, Ran Ukashi, Jonathon Fine, Kinneret Margovsky, Murray Greenfield, Judy-Price Rosen (Director, Young Leadership, Jewish Federation), and the writer comprised the Winnipeg delegation.

Winnipeggers on Mission to Havana Bring Medicine and Assistance to Cuban Jews

By Rhonda Spivak, Special Report from Cuba

Havana - Seven Winnipeggers were part of a group of 20 Canadian Jewish participants  who travelled to Havana Cuba last month as part of a first ever UIA Federations Canada’s Young Leadership Tikkun Olam mission. The mission was designed to assist Cuba’s small and relatively isolated Jewish community of about 1,500 people.

As Mindy Eklove, Director, National Young Leadership, UIA Federations Canada, said “We arrived in Cuba bringing duffle bags full of donations of medicines, as well as toothbrushes, soap, disposable diapers, and other essential items that are needed by Jews in Cuba.”

William Miller, vice-president of the Cuban Jewish community explained  “We give out the medicines to members of the Jewish community in need on a weekly basis, and we are very grateful for what you have brought.”

Winnipeg’s Jonathon Fine, a pharmacist on the trip offered to help  the Cuban Jews sort and categorize the medicines after the Tikkin Olam mission was over.

The participants of the  mission also helped divide and bag portions of powdered milk they purchased to be distributed to members of the Cuban Jewish community. Powdered milk rations in Cuba are only given up until age 7.

As Miller told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, “There is no fresh milk in Cuba, so there are many members of our community, especially those with babies and children, who rely on powdered milk.”

Prior to 1959, when Fidel Castro came into power, there was an active Jewish community of  some 15000 Jews in Havana alone, many of whose ancestors originated from Europe and Turkey . After Mr. Castro nationalized private business and property, 90 percent of the Jewish population, many of them business owners, left the island.  The remaining 10% were generally not observant Jews, and over the years many have since intermarried.

Jewish communal life continued to recede until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba changed its constitution, allowing for religious freedom.
Cuban government pharmacy
Cuban government pharmacy

Inside dilapitated Cuban government pharmacy
Inside dilapidated Cuban
government pharmacy


Bagging powdered milk
Bagging powdered milk
Adela Dworkin, president of the Cuban Jewish Community told the group, most  Cuban Jews have one child.

“In some ways I feel that it is a miracle that we have survived. For years we didn’t have enough Jewish people coming to pray in our synagogues.  We would have a ‘Cuban minyan’, made up of eight adults, and then we’d count the torah, and G-d, to make the necessary ten,” she said.

Miller noted that today, there are about 60 Cuban Jews a year “who make aliya to Israel”, but in  “2010 there were a hundred Cubans who married Jews and underwent conservative conversions.”


Dworkin spoke about her opportunity to meet Fidel Castro in 1998. 

“I asked him why he had never visited the Jewish community, and he answered because I was never invited.”

Dworkin immediately invited him to the coming Hanukkah celebration at the Patronato. [the Jewish  community centre, housed in the same building as the Beth Shalom Conservative Synagogue]. When Mr. Castro asked “what is Hanukkah?”  Dworkin answered “The holiday celebrates a revolution,” a word Castro which liked. To Dworkin’s surprise, Castro came to the party, and addressed the congregation in a lengthy speech.

A bust of  Hose Marti, one of the major  Cuban icons of  anti-colonialism, and independence adorns the entrance to the Patronado, as it does in many buildings in Cuba.

“Cubans like Hose Marti. We put him up everywhere,” said Alain, the group’s Cuban guide.

Participants  of the mission were greeted by many spirited young adults at the Patronato. The young Cuban Jews, many of whom have travelled to Israel on Birthright/Taglit programs, sang and danced in Hebrew, waving both Israeli and Cuban flags. 

“The Cuban government has granted travel visas to anyone who has applied to go on these [Birthright/Tagliit] programs,” Dworkin said, noting that these programs had clearly helped cement the Jewish identity of  the young Cubans.

Participants of the mission also visited and delivered essential items to the homes of elderly/vulnerable Cuban Jews, as part of the local KESHER program, and additionally they also joined with local Cubans in cleaning the Cuban Jewish cemetery. 
Che Guevara
Drawing on Havana Street of
Che Guevara, symbol of Cuban revolution

Bust of Jose Marti
Bust of Jose Marti, symbol of
anti-colonialism in Cuba Schoolyard
Downtown Havana
Downtown Havana

Downtown Havana
Downtown Havana
The group attended Friday evening services at the Beth Shalom synagogue,  had Shabbat dinner at the Patronado, and attended Saturday morning services at The Cuban Sephardic Centre synagogue.

As Alain, the group’s Cuban guide explained, “Every Sabbath the Joint Distribution Committee funds a chicken dinner for people who attend.  For many people this will be the only meat they eat all week, since Cubans are allocated only two rations of meat per month. It is very important that members of the Jewish community can come here and eat.”

When asked whether tuna or other fish could be served as an alternative to chicken, Alain responded, “Tuna is very expensive, because it is imported and fresh fish is not readily available.”

At the Shabbat dinner, there was also a group of visitors from the Cuba-America Jewish Mission. As June Safran, executive director of the group said, “ I was here in 1994 [after the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba lost its biggest trading partner]. Things then were real tough. People were existing on one meal a day, and in between they were drinking sweet water.  The adults were giving bread to their children.”
The Winnipeg delegation also presented equipment to the ORT program in Havana, from money they raised through the Jewish Federation/Young Leadership kick it for Cuba soccer tournament.

Regarding communications, Cubans do not generally have home computers and most do not have email access. Although internet and satellite television is available to tourists at hotels, it is not accessible to Cubans.
Young Cuban Jews dancing at the Patronado
Young Cuban Jews dancing at the Patronado


Beth Shalom Synagogue
Beth Shalom Synagogue

Sephardic Centre of Cuba
Sephardic Centre of Cuba in Havana. After 1959, when most Cuban Jews left, when necessary the same 10 men travelled between the four synagogues of Havana in order to ensure that each had a minyan.
“ Medical doctors, like myself have gotten email addresses. We are very lucky,” said Dr. Mayra Levy, a Jewish Cuban who is also the President of the Sephardic Centre of Cuba.

Shawna Goodman, campaign chair for Montreal Federation's CJA Young Leadership Campaign, summed up her feelings after the trip, “We need to educate other Canadian Jews who travel to Cuba to take an extra day and visit the community in Havana and to pack a bag of needed medicines, shampoo, etc.

The Cuban Jews cannot be forgotten… the highest form of tzedakah is to give them the tools to help themselves. They are the best investment ever and we have so much to learn from them.”

A version of this story has been published in the Canadian Jewish News. All photos by Rhonda Spivak.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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