Cuban Journey to Israel

by Melanie Fidler

The first time I heard about Jews living in Cuba was when my parent’s friends said they were accepted/allowed to go on a mission trip to Cuba. Because they were Jewish, they could apply through a synagogue to go with a small group of Jewish Americans bearing medical supplies to travel to Cuba for a 10 day trip exploring Cuba’s Jewish culture. The idea fascinated me. I quickly did my research and decided this was going to be my next personal story to work on.

Ever since I sailed on Semester at Sea (SAS) in fall ’04, I wanted to go to Cuba. SAS is a unique study abroad trip that takes a cruise ship and transforms it into a floating university with up to 600 students from around the nation to learn and travel together for 100 days. Quite literally, a semester at sea. Cuba was scheduled as our last port until Bush nipped that in the butt. Venezuela was the replacement, a much more dangerous country than Cuba, if you ask me.

I started to research the topic and met with the Cuban attaché in Washington D.C to apply for a journalist visa. I was able to get special permission from the U.S Treasury Department because I am a journalist. The hard part wasn’t entering Cuba from The States, it was getting Cuban permission to photograph important government events without getting my camera snatched! I met Mr.Amado Riol Pirez, Press Attaché to Cuba, a few times in D.C to explain my purpose and try to convince him I would not defame his country and act appropriately. I was promised a press visa. It wasn’t until a week before I left for Cuba that he told me Castro made some announcement and the doors were being shut to press and journalists and no more press visas would be issued. I bought a 1-way ticket to Cancun, Mexico to wing it! This was not going to stop me.

My plan was to stay in Havana for 10 days and really immerse myself in the Jewish community there, visiting the 3 different synagogues. While I was there Raul Castro came into power. Daily life as usual. It was at Adath Yisroel, the orthodox synagogue in Old Havana where I met Dr. Baly, a doctor who had a daughter that recently moved to Israel. That was my goal: to find Cuban families who were separated from family members who decided to convert to Judaism and leave Cuba in hopes for better economic freedom in Israel. I was invited back to Dr. Baly’s house, in a dodgy neighborhood, but was welcomed with open arms, coffee, and great discussion about all things Cuban. Nothing was off limits, except my excessive habit to photograph everything.

In the days to come I visited the Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba and a large Ashkenazi synagogue, The Patronado, two popular places of worship in Vedado. The Patronado catered to a young community with organized social events including Sunday School, Shabbat dinners, Israeli dance, a pharmacy, and different sports and activity groups. It seemed to me that most of the young community there was practicing Judaism, but had not legally converted yet, just to get off the streets and partake in the free social events with their friends. I learned that if you wish to convert to Judaism you must go through training and courses and you may have the opportunity to convert with a visiting Rabbi from Chile or Argentina every 1-2 years. Cuba does not have a Rabbi to conduct services.

I ended up leaving Havana a day early, because frankly I had seen and conquered everything I needed for this project and the bed bugs from my apt-for-rent were starting to irritate me. Plus, if I had one more Jamon y Queso (ham & cheese) I might explode. I made friends with locals, had long walks with the young community and was even invited to an elders home. Quite frankly, I could be a Havana-Cuba tour guide!

Plus, this was just the first half of my story. The tough part would be finding the family members who left their family in Cuba and now live somewhere in Israel. This would be a challenge, considering I just had their name. I would have to call the Jewish Agency in Israel and hope they could help me locate these estranged family members and then hope that they wouldn’t be scared and would want to contribute to my personal project. I had to be real careful what I recorded and what questions I asked, fearing the prying eyes and ears of Cuban soldiers on the streets and because the Cuban government seems to find any and all articles relating to Cuba and could punish the people I interviewed.

Lucky for me, I was able to find Annie, the daughter of the doctor I met in Cuba. Annie recently made Aliyah and was living in an absorption center, pregnant, with a bunch of other Cubans in Ra’anana, right outside Tel Aviv. The process of making Aliyah refers to Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. Basically if you are Jewish, the Israeli government will buy your plane ticket and get you a free place to stay while offering financial aid and services and Hebrew lessons if you choose to leave your home country and emigrate to Israel.

It’s a popular misconception that Cubans cannot leave their homeland. In reality anybody can leave, with the exception of doctors, military and government workers and anyone involved with secret government information, clearly. The issue isn’t leaving, the issue it finding the funds to buy a plane ticket. With Israel offering multiple free services, including the actual plane ticket, who wouldn’t want to convert and move in hopes of better living?

The multimedia (see above) I put together is just a taste of what I experienced and documents the journey of a young girl who converted to Judaism, and moved to Israel in hopes for a better future for her and her family. It is just a small taste of the local Jewish culture in Cuba and in Israel and describes the growing trend in Cuba as the youth converts to a religion for economic freedom.

Hope you enjoy it! Comments and questions are welcomed.


Melanie Fidler is a freelance photojournalist who has covered ongoing and emerging conflicts from the war in Israel and Lebanon as well as personal feature stories. Melanie began her career traveling the world with Semester at Sea, a unique study abroad program involving fieldwork and cross-cultural exposure in 11 different countries. Upon graduation in 2005, she boldly moved to Jerusalem to work for Flash90 photo and news agency covering social activities, spot news, conflict, public relations, and politics amongst other topics. Currently based in New York freelancing for The New Jersey Nets and The New York Times, Melanie is working on several new projects.

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