Student Reflections on Immersion Trip to Cuba

Our 10th and 11th grade Spanish students traveled to Cuba September 22-25. This once-in-a-lifetime experience immersed them in practicing the Spanish language, strengthened their worldview (specifically of another Jewish community), and exposed them to a country filled with culture and history. Foreign Language Department Chair Gail Shapiro led the inaugural trip, which was also chaperoned by Foreign Language Faculty members Sonia Hassin and Alejandro Meneses. Upon returning from the trip, our students shared their impressions of the country and their experiences.
 
 
“Visiting Cuba has been one of the most unique and interesting trips I've ever experienced. On this trip, I was able to take in so much Cuban culture, history and meet with the warm and kind people of the Havana Jewish community. 
 
The main focus of our trip was to visit the Jewish community in Cuba. Over the course of three short days, we met with so many diverse and interesting people.  One of our first interactions with the people was at the Sephardic Center where we ate lunch and had such nice conversations with the seniors in Spanish! This visit was a highlight for me, as I had such a memorable conversation with an older woman named Rosa who told me all about her life in Cuba. This was the first time I really heard from and talked to someone who was from Cuba. I learned so much from her. 
 
We also visited a beautiful Orthodox synagogue and met with a prominent figure at the Adath Shalom Shul. She told us all about life, and how even though the Jewish community is small in Cuba, they always have people come through their doors. I remember she told us that many years ago when some synagogues didn't have enough people for a minyan, the members used to go to one service and then when it ended, they would go to the other one. This showed me that the Jewish community in Cuba has always been small but they have always found creative ways to practice and preserve their Jewish traditions. Another interesting tradition that we learned about was the Cuban minyan. Since having a daily minyan of 10 people was rare and people couldn't always come, the Cuban community developed the idea of a Cuban minyan. This means having seven men, two Torahs, and God.  This is just an example of how committed and dedicated the Cuban Jews are to keep and preserve their Judaism. 
 
My favorite interaction with the Jewish community was when we met with Jewish young adults at the center.  We first met them for dinner, and it was really unique to hear about what it's like to live in Cuba. Talia, who was sitting next to me, shared how going to the Jewish Center is her main way to meet with other Jewish young adults. This made me think of how much I take my Jewish friends for granted.  She also told us about how at the center she enjoys Israeli dance, and how it is her main extracurricular activity. When we visited the center the following night, Talia and her friends taught us how to do Israeli dancing. They also taught us how to do the cha-cha, and everyone was laughing and had so much fun. Being with them was so much fun, and they brought such a new and exciting energy into our group.
 
While at the center, we also met with Adele Dworin, the leader and main representative of the Havana Jewish community. She showed us around and told us all about how grateful she was for aid from Jews around the world. Spending time in Cuba made me realize how hard life really is for the people. They lack the simple things that we take for granted in America. Medicine is one example. At the center, they have a pharmacy that distributes scarce medicines and other supplies to all people in the community, not only Jews. Food is also a very scarce commodity, and the fish they served us every night as tourists was considered rich people’s food.
 
After visiting Cuba and learning about how it has always been a country that has sheltered and protected Jews, I strongly believe that as fellow Jews we have an obligation to do the same and aid them. Throughout history, many Jews fled persecution - including during the Spanish Expulsion and the Holocaust - and sought asylum in Cuba, a country that has never had acts of antisemitism or discrimination. We have the same responsibility now to help the remaining Jews in Cuba live well and carry on their unique Jewish traditions.”
 
−Maya Soudry ‘21
 
 
“What fascinated me most during my trip to Havana was how vastly different my life is from the Cubans'. Throughout the entire trip, I was disconnected from my phone, family, friends, and the rest of the outside world. I was exposed to a completely different way of living. All of the resources in Cuba are extremely limited; Cubans only have access to certain foods and basic necessities. This limitation of resources, which is inherent to the Cubans' lifestyle, surprised me. I didn't understand how they were able to live this way. One of the most limited resources is medicine. Prior to our departure date, we gathered three suitcases full of different medicines. When we arrived at Havana, we donated the medicine to the Jewish community. 
 
During our trip, we visited three different synagogues and had the opportunity to eat and talk with some of the congregants. It was very interesting to hear about their life stories. What fascinated me most about these people was how dedicated they were to the Jewish religion and their synagogue. They explained that because the Jewish community in Cuba is so small, attending temple provides them with a sense of comfort.
 
This exposure also enabled me to become much more appreciative and grateful for everything I have. While I am privileged enough to have traveled all around the world, most of the people in Cuba have never traveled outside of their country. As I was walking through the crowded streets of Havana with my group, I realized that this country is beautiful in its own, pure way. I was so captivated by everything: the people, the ambiance, the food, and the culture. I fell more and more in love with Cuba as the days progressed. My trip to Cuba was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I will forever be grateful for this unforgettable and humbling opportunity.”
 
−Yael Abergel ‘22
 
 
“It was wonderful to visit Cuba as the country has a lot to offer. The Jewish community there is not thriving, but it instead survives (hopefully forever). The community is aging, and much of the youth makes Aliyah rather than remain in the country. Many of the Jews intermarry, although it is typical for the non-Jewish spouse to convert to Judaism at some point. I found this a true testament to the strength of the community, as the Jewish community there is appealing enough to encourage these people to convert, rather than remain intermarried. Although the country is somewhat dilapidated, there are improvements made every single day.”
Joshua Kaufman ‘22
 
“Ever since I was told that my Spanish class was going to Cuba, I was so excited. Coincidentally, my grandma is from Cuba, so I have heard a lot about Havana over the years. This trip gave me the opportunity to see the country, especially the Jewish community, through my own eyes. It was incredible to see the differences in culture and religious practices that they have in Cuba versus America. I think the trip was very important because of that and I’m so thankful that I was able to participate in such an amazing trip.”
 
−Danielle Mevorah ‘21
 
 
 
 
 
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