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I Was Shocked by What I Learned on My Trip to Cuba This Week

on Wednesday, January 18 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It is no secret that the incoming president of the United States is highly unpopular among significant segments of the country.  At least 60 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, representing over 10 percent of Congress, do not plan to attend the inauguration.  I personally disagree with their intended actions, as I disagree with those who did not attend President Obama’s inaugurations for partisan reasons.  The installation of our new president is as much about respecting the office, appreciating the smooth transition of government, and celebrating democracy as it is about honoring the person who will fill the chair in the oval office.

I also vehemently disagree with Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who publicly proclaimed that when President-Elect Trump takes office he will no longer say the standard prayer for the government.  “Because of my commitment to the integrity of prayer, starting this week, I can no longer recite or say amen to the Shabbat prayer for the success of the U.S. President,” he wrote.  To paraphrase others, an American citizen not praying for the success of the U.S. President is like a passenger on an airplane not praying for the pilot’s success because they have differences.  I think it was a serious mistake and dangerous example that some omitted or altered the text of the standard prayer for the president while President Obama was in office and the same holds true now.

In an age and at a time that many struggle to find meaning in prayer, I am concerned with the precedent of altering davening as a form of activism.  Would we be satisfied with people making alterations to other parts of davening that they are offended by or that aren’t compatible with their world view?  I understand the authorship of different prayers matters as does the varying versions available, but it is the precedent and spirit of change that worries me.   Additionally, in an age of partisanship and division, with each administration, some will not want to pray for him (or her). Will we continue to go back and forth over these prayers as a tug of war rope to determine if a particular president is good or bad for the Jews?  When we have concerns over a leader, it is exactly the time to daven hardest for him and his wisdom, guidance and success. We have many avenues for political activism, our prayers shouldn’t be one of them.

While I disagree with the protesting members of Congress, those who challenge the legitimacy of our democratically elected incoming president, and with people who will not pray for his success, I am extraordinarily grateful that they can freely articulate and practice as they wish.  In fact, their liberty and freedom of speech is exactly what this inaugural weekend is all about.

Earlier this week, I participated in a small, one-day humanitarian mission to Cuba.  We visited the country’s three existing synagogues and met with the president and vice president of the Jewish community of Cuba which once numbered 15,000 and is down to a conservatively estimated 1,200.  Sadly, over 99% have intermarried.  We brought them prescription medications such as antibiotics and cholesterol medicine, and basic supplies like toothbrushes and bulbs that are simply unavailable in Cuba.

If you want to experience time travel, visit Havana, Cuba.  The cars, styles, and above all the mentality are a throwback to another era, one which most of us today are unfamiliar with.  There is no internet access other than in Wi-Fi parks where it is monitored and filtered.  It is illegal to kill a cow in Cuba and meat is unavailable for purchase.  In fact, conditions are so poor, that our guide told us he has been trying to buy deodorant for two months unsuccessfully and his father shared that he has gone to three stores to purchase toilet paper but none is available.

Each synagogue has a pharmacy and functions more to provide social services than religious ones.  The large former sanctuary of the Sephardic shul has been converted into a dance studio and theater and they have moved into a much smaller space with an emphasis on caring for seniors.  The small orthodox shul continues to meet, though the majority of its attendees do not live in walking distance.  Cuba has no rabbi, no mohel, and no shochet.  When enough lifecycle events pile up, a rabbi flies in from Chile to officiate combined weddings, bar mitzvahs and brises.

Most of the children have moved to Israel or Miami.  Ask those who remain why they are there and they answer something that stunned me.  Despite the limitations, dying Jewish community, and lack of what we consider basic freedoms, they feel pride in Cuba and in their history and heritage.  Even more surprising, when we asked what they think of Fidel Castro those we met with said it was a love-hate relationship.  We are used to hearing Cuban-American elected officials describe the horrific human rights violations, the oppressive dictatorship, but for many Cubans, Castro and his revolution brought egalitarianism, equality, free college education, and some form of health coverage.  They concede Castro did some terrible things but, they explain, “nobody is perfect.”  In their opinion, those who left and those that have only disdain for Castro came from wealthier families and those in private businesses that Castro dissolved.  But those who came from poorer backgrounds and struggled to be employed are grateful for the social equality they now enjoy.  They point to the absence of crime and anti-Semitism in Cuba evidenced by the lack of security at any synagogue or destination we visited.

Yes, it is possible that those who shard those sentiments simply lacked the ability to speak freely with us and tell us how they really feel.  However, while I don’t presuppose to challenge the authenticity of their feelings, my own suspicion is that the reason they feel as they do has to do with the power of indoctrination.  The socialist, communist forces, influences, values, and ideas have been hammered home for multiple generations and seem to have successfully brainwashed many of the Cubans.

When God recruits Moshe to shepherd the Jewish people out of Egypt, He describes the mission as taking them “MiYad Mitzrayim, from the hand of Egypt.”  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there were two exoduses that needed to occur.  First, the Jewish people needed to be liberated from the physical persecution of Egypt.  But additionally, they needed to be freed from the culture, ideas, influences, and indoctrination they were subjected to.  Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easier part.  Taking Egypt out of the Jews would prove much harder.

Listening to our newfound friends in Cuba, I couldn’t help but wonder in what ways are we back home indoctrinated with ideas, values, and pursuits that are obviously foolish to others, but we are too blinded to see.  How have we been molded and shaped by the culture and milieu in which we live and operate in such a way that we fail to see or realize how much better we could have it in some ways?

When we asked how they felt about the renewed relations between the U.S. and Cuba and the recent change in the immigration law, they sounded very hopeful and optimistic.  We watched American Airlines, Delta, Jetblue and Spirit all land planes in our short time in the airport (while we waited for airport personnel to take some of our humanitarian goods for themselves before they would let us through).  Cubans see the cruise ships coming in daily and witness the burst of the tourist industry.  The government and Raúl Castro are the only beneficiaries right now of the influx, but the Cubans see what could be if only things would change. With the reversal of the wet foot, dry foot policy that had granted residency to Cuban refugees who made it to America, Cubans now know they have nowhere to escape to and they will be motivated to demand changes.  Those we spoke to feel change is coming and it is going to be good.  Let us hope and pray they are right.

Over a cup of Cuban rum and a fine Cuban cigar we asked one last question.  What would happen if you would stand in the street with a sign or a megaphone criticizing Castro or the Cuban government?  The answer – “I would immediately be arrested and imprisoned for a minimum of five years.”

Whether you love Trump or hate him, whether you agree or disagree with the boycotters and those changing our prayers, this weekend, take a moment to offer thanks for how fortunate and blessed we are to live in a country that allows us to express our opinions, in which we citizens choose our leaders and shape our policies and destiny.

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