After a close friend returned from Cuba, on a trip to learn about her Jewish roots, Shaindle Schmuckler thought it would be good idea to organize regular missions to the island. Eleven years later, the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody is currently on its 17th mission.
“My friend talked to me about learning how Jews survived in Cuba during the 50 years of Soviet domination,” Schmuckler recalled. “It is a perfect example of how Jews survived for thousands of years.”
These missions to Cuba are focused on not only connecting with Cuban Jews but also delivering much needed aid to the economically isolated nation. Schmuckler, a community organizer for the MJCC, said she was looking for new ways to engage members in community service. “Humanitarian mission to Cuba was an opportunity to do good work,” she said.
This current weeklong mission began on June 20. A maximum of 25 people participate because of restrictions on the number of travel documents that the government issues. Participants will deliver donations (mainly medical supplies), absorb the island’s history and culture, as well as meet with spiritual lay leaders of Cuba’s Jewish community.
A number of Jews fled to the island during the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the late 1400s. Some of them were Marranos, those forced to convert to Christianity but secretly continued to practice Judaism. Another significant wave of Jewish immigrants came to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century.
According to some estimates, the island’s Jewish population reached 15,000 when Fidel Castro seized power. About 90 percent of them fled, mainly to the United States, when the dictator began nationalizing private businesses and property. And under decades of Soviet domination, the island’s remaining Jewish community withered. Today, there are about 1,500 Jews in Cuba.
But there is a revival in this new climate of openness toward religion in Cuba. Schmuckler said there are no government-imposed restrictions on the practice of Judaism and no anti-Semitism on the island. But there are also no rabbis living there. She explained that rabbis from Argentina (and other Latin American countries) go to Cuba regularly to lead services.
So far, the MJCC has donated more than $4 million in aid on its missions, Schmuckler reported, much of it pharmaceuticals, infant Tylenol, vitamins, and so forth. She noted that medical care is free in Cuba and Cuban doctors are among the best trained in the world.
“However, they often lack modern, hi-tech medical equipment and other basics,” she explained. “One year the mission provided the gel used with ultrasound diagnostic equipment. I sent out an email to people in the community who responded by providing the donations we needed.”
When Schmuckler announces a new mission, most people are inquisitive about the island. Leigh Wilson, who participated in a mission last February, said she went on the mission trip because of her curiosity about Cuba and desire to assist with distribution of much needed medical supplies.
Wilson said she has traveled extensively, including trips to poor, underdeveloped nations such a Vietnam and several African counties. Compared to those countries, she said Cubans are educated and enjoy a high level of free health care. “I saw poor people in Cuba, but not the abject poverty that I’ve seen in desperately poor counties,” she added.
However, Wilson doubts that she will make another trip to Cuba. “Few people go more than once,” Schmuckler stated. “But they do continue to donate to the missions.”
Many outside the Jewish community have also participated in these missions. Schmuckler said a number of Christians have joined the missions over the years. Some of them are religious liberty advocates who want to learn how Cuban Jews “survived an inhospitable environment.”
Indeed, Schmuckler said she is always impressed with the spiritual strength of Cuban Jews and their “intense commitment to Judaism.” They have few material possessions, she said, but make do with what they have and are grateful for their blessings.
“What is most rewarding for me is the spiritual uplift I get from these missions,” she stated. “It makes me proud to be Jewish. I see how we survived.”