By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Dr. Sara Bedoya was raised in a small Cuban town. She was a member of the town’s only Jewish family. Though she knew of her faith and heritage, she was raised without access to a Jewish education or resources. When her mother passed away 12 years ago from cancer and her family moved to the city of Camaguey, where there are more Jews, she decided to honor her mother by learning more about her religion.
Soon, Bedoya began to observe Shabbat and take part in community events. Three years ago, she was elected president of the Camaguey Jewish community. Last week, she and nine other Cuban-Jewish women visited Israel for their first time on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.
“I have so much love for this country. It was so perfect,” Bedoya told JNS.org regarding Israel on the final day of her nine-day trip, which took the women from Safed to Masada and from Jerusalem to the Negev, exploring Jewish values, Jewish and Israeli history, and contemporary Israeli society.
The 10 Cuban women were part of a larger delegation of 120 Jewish mothers visiting Israel from around the world. More than 700 additional Jewish mothers took part in similar JWRP trips around the same time, which either culminated—as Bedoya’s experience did—or kicked off with a May 16 “mega event” at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. The event was headlined by Israel Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who discussed the future of the Diaspora-Israel relationship and the role Jewish women can play in strengthening ties between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
The Jewish mothers traveled to Israel from Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Germany, Mexico, Panama, South Africa, and the United States. Some Israelis also participated in the event.
JWRP began working with the Cuban-Jewish community in August 2015 after the initiative’s founder, Lori Palatnik, visited a synagogue in Havana and noticed that remembrance plaques for deceased synagogue members did not have the light bulbs that are traditionally illuminated on each person’s yahrzeit (anniversary of their death). Palatnik provided the bulbs, but said she realized how tragic it was that the children and grandchildren of those who founded the community were assimilated and disconnected.
“Let’s light up their souls,” Palatnik resolved.
The Cuban-Jewish community comprises about 1,200 people, most of whom lack Jewish resources due to economic hardship.
“They don’t have access to the Internet. Speakers don’t go there. A rabbi only goes a few times per year. More than being at risk of anti-Semitism, they lack access. They just don’t have the financial resources,” Galia Rubinstein, JWRP’s partnership manager for Latin America and Europe, told JNS.org.
Further, during communist leader Fidel Castro’s early years in power, religion was officially cast aside in a fashion not that dissimilar from what occurred in the former Soviet Union. Members of religious groups were denied jobs in government and academia. This spurred Cuban Jews to flee or assimilate. By some accounts, the Jewish intermarriage rate in Cuba is 90 percent.
In the last two decades, largely through the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee humanitarian group, new life has been infused into Cuban Jewry. Additionally, Alan Gross, a Jewish subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was imprisoned for five years over his efforts to help Cuban Jews access the Internet, was freed in December 2014 amid the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. Before Gross’s arrest in 2009, the Internet was illegal in Cuba and could only be accessed by what Gross estimates to be “2 percent of the population,” he said in an interview with JNS.org in April. Internet service would cost $6 an hour at hotels, and non-tourists caught using the Web would be arrested. In June 2013, the Internet was legalized in Cuba, and prices went down first to $4.50 and now to $2 an hour. Initially, Cuba only enabled Internet access on government-provided computers rather than personal devices, but it now allows WiFi.
JWRP and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry recently announced a partnership for 2016 and 2017 to dramatically expand JWRP’s trips, aiming to reach more than 5,600 Jewish mothers from 26 countries. The partnership will enable JWRP and the ministry to involve women from more Jewish communities facing increased anti-Semitism and/or economic hardship, including communities in Cuba, Argentina, the former Soviet Union, and France.
Tamara Martino, another participant in JWRP’s trip to Israel, said she was raised in Cuba knowing she was Jewish, though she was not observant. When she had her own children—who are now ages 22 and 17—she decided she wanted to provide them with a Jewish education. Ultimately, she became a teacher at Havana’s Albert Einstein School, where she offers courses in Hebrew, Jewish studies, and Jewish history.
Both Sara Bedoya and Martino said they are returning to Cuba with leadership skills, Jewish ideas, and Jewish practices gleaned from their trip to Israel, and that they will work to infuse those elements into their local Jewish communities.
“What did I learn? No matter where we are in the world, our place is here in Israel,” an enthusiastic Martino told JNS.org, “and women have the power to change the world.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.