Many of us are familiar with the story of Bonchi the Silent: the poor, righteous man who accepts every heartache and trouble in his life without objection. Upon his death Bonchi ascends the very heights of Heaven to the Throne of God, whereupon The Holy One, surrounded by all God’s hosts, offers him anything as a reward for his piety. In response, the man only some bread and perhaps a little butter, resulting in groans, as the angels realize his piety was for poverty of imagination as much as anything else.
I was thinking a great deal about this story as 17 of us from Beth Emeth traveled throughout Cuba, engaging with the island’s history, its challenges, its people and especially its Jewish communities.
To say Cuba is a poor country would be an achievement in understatement. Three houses collapse in Havana daily, on average. Beautiful homes that once held the wealthy are now jam-packed with 80 or more people who have no means of keeping up their apartments with an average salary of $20-30 a month, and those sit next to Soviet-Era brutalist apartments that haven’t seen paint or patch in some time. To be sure, we didn’t see the kind of poverty one experiences in, say, Jamaica; we did not see shantytowns lacking basic resources, but if you can imagine some of the worst parts of the East Side of Wilmington, or Browntown, or parts of south Philadelphia, you can get a sense as to the living conditions.
We went as a mission: not to enjoy the sun (which was good, there wasn’t any!) but to bring relief supplies to the Jewish communities of Havana and Cienfuegos. Once a thriving community made up of American, Turkish and German Jews who had fled to Cuba over the years and set up stores and businesses, many had fled after Fidel Castro’s revolution, leaving a remnant 1500 Jews across the whole island, mostly in the capital. And yet, there was life there; they ran senior centers and pharmacies, Holocaust Museums and clinics. They practiced their religion openly and enthusiastically, and were always permitted to make Aliyah, an opportunity many of their young people have taken up. For Shabbat, we joined Bet Shalom in Havana, the Ashkenazi Conservative congregation (There are only three left total in Havana), where their youth group led services and made Shabbat dinner, the sanctuary filled with young adults and teens reciting a service in Hebrew and Spanish any Reform Jew would recognize and be able to follow along. We visited the community in Ciengfuegos, which meets in the president’s apartment, in a room smaller than one of our classrooms. With the last rabbis having fled in the 50s and 60s, the community has learned to be self-reliant, and to thrive and even find tremendous joy, despite profound dependence on the Jewish communities of North America.
But if you ask a Cuban—Jewish or non-Jewish—what the future holds, you get unsure looks and even less sure words. Lots of worry—about becoming Disneyland, or Jamaica, or Shanghai, and losing some essential aspects of their culture. For all their poverty, for all their disenfranchisement, Cubans are proud of their heritage and their country, and a sense that the remnant that hasn’t fled—to America, to Israel—is all in it together, and they don’t want to lose that. At the same time, when I asked members of the community what their hopes for the future were, they couldn’t articulate an idea. Just as Bonchi couldn’t imagine a world of joy, the Cubans I spoke with couldn’t imagine five or 10 years down the road. Not because they don’t have hopes and dreams—for themselves and their children—nor because they lacked for enthusiasm, but because there is an innocence, a gentleness. All they could do was keep going: keep singing, keep serving the community, keep holding together with pride and love, keep maintaining the buildings, the Torahs, the books, the cemeteries, and especially the community to the best of their ability.
17 of us went to Cuba. We brought school supplies and religious items, medicine (thanks to Sara Hockstein), and canes (thanks to the Kutz home), clothes and materials and money for the communities we encountered. I brought home new friendships and connections, an appreciation for all that we have in this community, the support we bring to each other, and a humility about the work we do, and a new appreciation for the power of our heritage, for if Judaism can survive amidst the poverty of Cuba, then surely it can thrive anywhere.