For some students and alumni of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, summer got off to a tropical start.
From June 15 to 20, a group of 28 Barrack students, alumni and parents packed carry-ons and joined Spanish teacher and Holocaust education adviser Susan Schwartz (or, as her students simply call her, “Señora”) on a trip to various spots in Cuba planned by Gil Travel.
The trip was originally brought up to another teacher who couldn’t go, and when she asked Schwartz if she’d be interested, Schwartz said, “Uh, yeah!”
As Cuba had not been offered as a destination for so many years, she jumped at the chance to give her students the opportunity to exercise their Spanish in a completely different environment.
“To see their reactions where they asked, ‘How many?’, ‘Where is this?’ and ask all those important, key questions to navigate a new country in the target language — it was such a joy to watch,” she said.
The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start as President Donald Trump announced plans to restrict travel to Cuba and enforce stricter trade policies the day they arrived.
It was unnerving initally, Schwartz recalled of first hearing the announcement after they arrived.
“We were trying to not show the younger people we were nervous, but we really were,” she said, “but then we were sure it would be OK because we were a group and it was under the guise of an educational experience.”
With guides, the group toured sites including Ernest Hemingway’s estate, where he wrote works like The Old Man and the Sea — which was a highlight for the group, Schwartz noted, as it was set up as he left it, including a yellowed newspaper still sprawled across the bed — and Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), where the iconic outline of Che Guevara is plastered to the wall.
They rode in the classic convertible cars and stayed in a hotel not unlike the one where Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth meet on the rooftop in The Godfather Part II. While riding in the cars was a fun opportunity for the students, Schwartz reminded them of the circumstances.
“I said to the students, ‘Please be mindful of this fun Facebook opportunity, photo op, it’s their reality,’” she said. “They do not have cars after 1959. As cool as it is and yes, they get tips and they get paid for taking us, that’s their reality.”
For Schwartz, who had a personal interest in visiting Cuba as she is working on a novel about the Jews who financed Christopher Columbus, the expectations and reality of the country were a little different.
Decaying buildings; windows missing glass panes; no formal gardens — the appearance of the country and the careful language of the tour guides took her aback.
“Each of the tour guides followed very, very scripted descriptions. They stuck to a Communist script where every other sentence contained the words ‘the triumph of the revolution,’” she recalled. “We were looking around; there were dilapidated buildings, clearly with no electricity. … Once-grandiose and magnificent buildings that we’ve all seen in mob movies and other things were now just dilapidated, empty.”
There is running water every other day, she noted, and toilet paper must be bought. There is little internet access and even when there is, she said most people don’t do much research for fear of accidentally searching for something that could be misconstrued by the government as treason.
But there were many highlights of the trip, particularly the Jewish sites they visited.
The group visited El Patronato, one of three remaining synagogues in Havana. The synagogue, which Schwartz said is led by teenagers and has a Hebrew school, also distributes needed pharmaceutical and medical goods. Parents on the trip who were doctors brought items like Band-Aids and Tylenol to donate.
They joined the congregation for Shabbat services the Friday night of their trip before visiting a Sephardi congregation for Shabbat lunch the next day.
“We sat with the community and [the students] were so excited that even though the transliterations were in Spanish, because they were so well-versed in how to do Jewish services and what Shabbat services are like. They could follow along, and that was one of the really defining moments of the trip,” she said.
They visited a Holocaust museum housed in the Sephardic Hebrew Center, which Schwartz said was “tiny but powerful,” with wall-sized portraits and timelines in English and Spanish.
A friend who joined Schwartz on the trip found photos of people who were in her mother’s wedding album; her mother had fled Poland and found refuge in Cuba, like many other Jews fleeing the Nazis.
That stuck out to Schwartz during a trip to Santa Clara, a city a few hours from Havana that’s home to 15 Jews who have maintained their Judaism.
“It was a one-room synagogue basically with some mosaics on the rooftop, but the pride in what these elderly Jews have been able to hold on to, maintain, cultivate,” Schwartz marveled.
These Jews had the opportunity to make aliyah to Israel, but their commitment to staying where they are and keeping the traditions alive was paramount.
“They couldn’t desert what they committed their lives to cultivating,” she said.
The visit to Santa Clara and the dedication of Cuban Jews to retain their Judaism stuck out to parents as well.
Margo Brenner went on the trip with two of her three daughters, Mira and Abby Greenspan, rising 10th- and seventh-graders, respectively.
“What we found was that they struggle to survive Jewishly, but are very proud of, literally, keeping the faith, and of the interest young people are showing in Jewish traditions and practices,” Brenner wrote in an email. “I was struck by how hard the community elders work to maintain their connection to Jewish practice, while many Jews in the U.S. take it for granted or deliberately let go of Jewish traditions.
“I hope my daughters learned to appreciate the freedoms and privileges we enjoy in the U.S., and that living our faith and values is not always easy,” she added. “Jews have been persecuted everywhere in the world, but we survive and persist — even in towns as small as Santa Clara, Cuba.”
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