On a cloudy afternoon, in a dusty field 90 miles south of Key West, using makeshift bases, wooden bats and imported gloves, a group of children bridged the gap between cultures as they ran, hit and fielded balls together. This was baseball at its best. And there were smiles, high fives and home runs all around.
On this day in Havana, nearly a dozen Cuban Jewish children joined eight American Jewish children, ages 9 to 15, for one incredible game of ball. As a culminating experience of our recent mission to Havana, the game provided the kids with a lasting memory of their Cuban brothers and sisters, who are so much like them, yet so different as well.
This past Thanksgiving, four families from the Main Line traded in a traditional turkey dinner for an unconventional voyage — a mission to Cuba. Armed with 19 suitcases, most filled with provisions for the Cuban Jewish community, we boarded a charter flight from Miami to Havana.
Hundreds of American Jews visit Cuba annually, bringing much-needed supplies. Few missions, however, include children.
But our trip was geared specifically for the next generation. Before departing, the children in our group raised some $4,000, used to purchase school supplies, medicine, Judaica and more.
Because ours was a religious mission, we spent most of our time visiting with and getting to know the Cuban Jewish community. We delivered supplies to Havana's Orthodox and Sephardic synagogues, and visited the only kosher butcher on the island.
We spent time at the Patronata, the spiritual and cultural hub of Jewish life in the city. Together, we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat there and enjoyed dinner with nearly 100 members of their community. Our meal consisted of a piece of chicken, a spoonful of mashed potatoes and some vegetables. Most people present could not afford chicken — ever. Our generous gifts (as well as others from around the world), enabled them to eat well that night.
Delivering the Goods
We embraced Havana's Jewish young adults, learning about their connection to Judaism and their plans for the future. One of the most impressive was Wilbur — a bartender at Havana's Jewish-themed Hotel Raquel, as well as an extraordinary volunteer, traveling hundreds of miles each month to visit less fortunate Jews throughout Havana.
Wilbur brings critical supplies and food to 19 of Havana's most vulnerable Jews. He travels everywhere by bus. Like most citizens there, he cannot afford a car. This would be the first time Wilbur escorted a family mission on some of his visits.
With him and four other young Jewish adults, our group prepared for the deliveries by shopping at a local CUC store to purchase groceries. Cubans are paid for their work in Cuban pesos, worth very little (the average salary is 20 pesos — $20 — per month). They are used for staples, but not accepted for anything extra.
CUC is "convertible currency," each one worth about a U.S. dollar. This is the money tourists spend and Cubans use to buy "luxury" items like extra cooking oil, tuna fish or even a chocolate bar. Wilbur and his friends helped us fill several carts with food and household necessities; it was probably the first time these young people had seen that much purchased at once.
Wilbur took us to meet seven distinct families. In each home, residents were in desperate need. One elderly woman lived on the second floor of a walk-up. There was no glass in her windows. Her running water was rationed. She couldn't ever get out because she was too infirm to use the stairs.
She wore a Star of David, but because she married a non-Jew and because of previous Cuban laws against organized religion, her children did not affiliate Jewishly. When we handed her a mezuzah as a gift, she cried.
We heard similar stories in each home. Everyone was grateful to us for taking the time to meet them and offer them gifts. And each person was impressed by our children as they listened, learned and shared with their Cuban brothers and sisters. Like the little boy who stepped up to home plate during our Shabbat ball game, we hit a home run.
Holly Nelson is campaign vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Women's Philanthropy.