The assignment was to deliver pounds and pounds of collected goods to the small Jewish community in the Communist country about 100 miles south of the United States. But with a U.S. embargo against Cuba, a normally easy task proved difficult.
On the small airplane from Miami, each passenger was allowed just 44 pounds of luggage. Their own personal effects, however – plus the added weight of medication, clothing and Judaica they had collected at home to donate – pushed the plane over capacity. Some had to disembark and choose what needed to stay and what could go.
"We had to get rid of 900 pounds, so we arrived in Cuba without [most of] our donations," lamented Howard Glantz, cantor at the Elkins Park Conservative congregation, who led the mission. "They promised us the bags would be in Cuba the next day, but when they came in and we went to get them, that started the red tape and bureaucracy."
The group had to go through each of the bags and prove that the belongings coming into the country were for personal use only. The task of convincing customs agents that a suitcase full of medication, syringes and glucometers was solely for one person, though, proved understandably difficult.
Said Glantz, with some humor: "There's no way a person could have that many ailments."
Fortunately, the cantor realized quickly that it was relatively easy to sneak medication out of the luggage and into his pockets, or to make lidocaine patches look like travel pamphlets and bring them back to the bus while the officers searched other bags. The other trip members caught on, and were able to get all but four or five bags back.
"Once the customs agent with a gun on his belt said, 'That is the last one,' that was it," stated Glantz. "I was told later on that I could have tried to bribe them. The worst that would happen is that it wouldn't work, but I wouldn't have gone to jail."
What actually happened to those leftover bags remains a mystery; participants were just glad they saved what they could.
"The president of the [Cuban] synagogue said he would have a lawyer go get them," said Gerry Rudman, a resident of Wyncote who helped plan the trip. "But all Cubans need medications, so we figured they had to help someone – Jews or non-Jews."
After the luggage snafu – which Glantz insisted couldn't be adequately described in words or pictures – it was on to a more important task: delivering the goods at hand.
According to Glantz, three congregations exist in Havana: a Sephardic, an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue – called Beth Shalom, or the Patronato Synagogue – which is the largest in terms of membership. The 53-year-old shul and community center houses an organized pharmacy with a pharmacist on staff who ensures that all donated medication – there are missions nearly every week in October through April – are used properly and dispensed to those in need. The travelers also visited two synagogues that operate out of people's homes in rural areas of the country.
'A Moving Experience'
"Meeting the Jewish community was a moving and positive experience," said Michael Dolfman, a resident of Cheltenham who traveled with his wife. "You have to look beyond the dilapidated buildings and beyond the cars in poor condition. That's not Cuba. It's when you meet the people and see the people that you get a real sense of what Cuba is like."
According to Glantz, about 1,500 Jews live in the country – a drastic decrease from the more than 20,000 that called the nation home in the 1950s before the military coup that brought Fidel Castro in as president.
Still, he said, Cuba is one of the few Jewish communities in the world that boasts an uptick in its population rate.
Rudman got involved with organizing the trip after a friend of hers went on a similar mission. With a waiting list to join the excursion, synagogue members collected everything and anything they could to bring there.
They hoarded samples from family physicians, they picked up Judaica from the synagogue store at Adath Jeshurun, and even brought crayons and baseball caps for children. So much was collected, in fact, that some items had to be saved for other local groups planning to go on similar missions.
Once there, participants observed Shabbat at the Patronato, visited a Jewish cemetery, had lunch with Cuban families and spent some time on their own.
"I think, if nothing else, the trip and experience helped us all better appreciate our Jewishness, and appreciate the advantages that we have," said Dolfman. "I'm not going to take for granted being able to practice my religion and have kosher food – or the services of a rabbi and a synagogue.
"It's not easy to live in Cuba, and it's even more difficult to be a practicing Jew there."