Reflections from Houston to Havana

Written by Jessica Starkschall, Inside Jewish Cuba 2017 Alum

I have the most complicated bookends to the 2017 JDC Entwine trip to Cuba.  However, in between these bookends, are pages of the most captivating story of 30 young professionals who visited the majestic city of Havana, culminating in a Shabbat with the Cuban Jewish community that I will remember forever.

I live in Houston, Texas.  Houston is my home and has been since I was 3 years old.  Just days before our departure for Havana, Hurricane Harvey came barreling towards the Texas Gulf Coast bringing 50 inches of rain to my home.  You all know what happened - Houston was devastated by the mass flooding occurring throughout the city.  Luckily, my family and I were spared from the floods, which led me to a predicament I never would have expected.  Assuming I could make it to Miami, should I leave my home,  my Jewish community, which needed so much help, to spend 4 days with the Havana Jewish community?  

After a 4 hour drive to San Antonio, 5 different cancelled flights, and very little sleep, I made it to Miami and boarded the plane for Havana with the group, albeit a little apprehensively.  Now, I can say I will never regret the decision I made, as my eyes were opened to a warm and welcoming community of Jews who were so incredibly different from me in many ways, and were also so much like me in many ways.

I will never forget standing in the departures terminal of Miami International Airport before checking in for our flight, with everyone’s bags sprawled out across the floor as we consolidated supplies that we were going to bring to help stock the pharmacy run by the Jewish community.  Through a generous donation, the JDC was also able to bring 10 wheelchairs to the community, and I can only begin to imagine the good this will do for the community.  It was humbling when we began to unload the wheelchairs.  As soon as we got them off the bus, our group began to pose for a group photo and the staff eagerly asked us to include the wheelchairs in the photo.  They were both excited and gracious for what we were bringing.  To be honest, I’m not sure I will ever fully grasp the impact these gifts will have on their community.

After meeting some of the young Jewish Cubans from the community over dinner earlier in our trip, we had one of the most memorable Shabbat experiences of my life.  We learned so much about the Jewish community in Havana, and for as much as we hope the gifts we brought will help their community, they certainly helped us in return.  Having worked as a Youth Director in a previous job, I was extremely impressed to walk in to synagogue and see teenagers (17 and 18 years old) leading services.  Their commitment to their Judaism is inspiring.  These kids all take on extremely meaningful roles in the Jewish community, and even though I’d only met them 24 hours earlier, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride for these new friends who were reciting the same prayers and blessings that I have grown up with at services at my home synagogue in Houston.  It is amazing that even though our first language is not the same, we are united together by the Hebrew language through worship, because no matter where you go, the prayers are the same.  Fast forward 24 hours, and again, I felt a sense of belonging to this community as we wrapped our arms around each other’s shoulders and chanted the Havdallah blessings together. 

And now, similarly to how I began my trip, my first bookend - with a threatening hurricane, I write this as Hurricane Irma batters the Cuban coast line, my final bookend.  As soon as I got home, I went right over to a friend’s house to help her muck out her grandmother’s flooded home.  I only wish I could do the same for my new Cuban friends.  They are, and always will be, in my thoughts.


Written By

September 15, 2017 at 11:35 AM



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