An Incredible Cultural Restoration in Cuba: My Time in Havana with JDC

Sam Fuchs participated in our Inside Jewish Cuba Insider Trip in December 2013. More on our trips at

Sitting on a flight headed home to Washington, DC, I felt as though I had just left a completely different world. The bright Miami skyline stood in stark contrast to that of Havana’s, and I was returning emails on my smartphone. However, for the past four and a half days, I had been only 90 miles away – and in the same time zone as home – meeting people with similar values and traditions, even though we spoke different languages.

A few of the particularly powerful moments and feelings we experienced in Cuba were:

  • Seeing young adults lead Shabbat services attended by people of all generations;
  • Joining 150 people for Friday night chicken dinner after Shabbat services (this is one of the few opportunities people have to consume a protein-rich meal);
  • Linking arms with people of all ages at Havdalah services;
  • Realizing that even in a country where people face so many hardships and limitations (living on an income of $20-$25 per month, limited food rations, and in crowded apartments) – people rarely complain and simply make do with what they have. 

During our short trip to Havana, we met with Jewish community leaders, visited the local Jewish cemetery, ate in paladars (small restaurants operated out of a person’s home), toured Ernest Hemingway’s home, and learned about the city’s history. Walking around the old Jewish quarter, we saw where the Kosher restaurant once stood and encountered a local barber shop at which two people in our group opted for quick $6 haircuts. We also met Jewish-Cuban young adults and spoke with them about their daily lives. We taught them Zoomba choreography, and they taught us how to Salsa (I think they were better at Zoomba than we were at salsa, though).

It is incredible to see how much the Cuban Jewish Community, in collaboration with the JDC, has accomplished since restrictions on religious practices were lifted in 1991. The Cuban Jewish Community has a tremendous sense of pride in their heritage and has taken ownership of their community. For example, they do not need a manager or director to help guide Friday night chicken dinners – people simply pitch in, help prepare the meal, and pass out plates without being asked. My visit with the Cuban Jewish Community reminded me of something Steven Spielberg wrote when he visited Havana several years back, a quote that was framed on the wall at the Patronato synagogue: “When I see how much cultural restoration has been performed by you and others, it reminds me again about why I am so proud to be a Jew." I feel privileged both to have spent a long weekend in an incredible city with an amazing group of young adults and to have experienced such a wonderful, welcoming community. I never thought I would be able to say I that I spent Shabbat in Havana.

Maybe next time we can come for Purim!

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February 24, 2014 at 11:55 AM




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