Above: Emory students visit the Cuban Jewish community in early March.

By Jason Friedman

On March 5, 13 Emory University students went on a trip to Cuba with Emory Hillel to interact with and perform service projects for the Jewish community in Havana.

There is nothing quite like getting on an airplane in Miami, a city with a robust Jewish community, and landing in Havana, a city whose Jewish population today numbers only 1,100.

Upon arriving in Cuba’s capital, I was not surprised to learn that over 90 percent of the Jews who used to live in Cuba immigrated to the United States to escape the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro. I was surprised, however, by the fact that the Jewish community that remains Cuba is, against all odds, full of joy and life.

Jason Friedman is an Emory College junior.

Jason Friedman is an Emory College junior.

Traveling to Cuba for the first time, I was somewhat uncomfortable at the notion of negotiating a land with a foreign language and a foreign system of government. However, walking through the doors of Havana’s Beth Shalom Jewish Community Center felt like coming home.

We were greeted with smiles and hugs by an elderly yet energetic group of “Jubans,” or Jewish Cubans, who proceeded to sing and dance to “Hava Nagila” with our group.

At first it felt a little bizarre to hear the Jubans speak Yiddish and kvell about their grandchildren, but I realized this is standard practice for Jews around the world.

After making lunch and chatting with the Jewish seniors of Beth Shalom in a mix of broken Spanish and Hebrew, we had the opportunity to interact with the Cuban Jewish youth. We helped lead an English language class and an arts and crafts project for the children. Their energy and enthusiasm were truly infectious.

Although spirits were high as we rejoiced together as one global Jewish community, it is important to remember that it is still a community in need. We arrived at the synagogue with suitcases packed to the brim with supplies to meet the community’s dire needs. Medicine, soap, socks and other essentials are in short supply not only for the Jewish community, but also for the country as a whole.

In the spirit of Judaism, the synagogue works to provide support for all members of the community regardless of religious background. Although the Jewish community in Cuba is thriving spiritually, materially it is not. It was a rare privilege to be able to support fellow Jews in this way and help build a stronger Jewish community around the world.

Jason Friedman is an Emory College junior.