A Road Less Traveled: Insights from Our Women’s Mission to Cuba

By Dana Koenig, Manager, Immersive Travel

On May 15, 2024, our group of 23 Jewish women embarked on Federation’s Women's Mission to Cuba, excited to explore the vibrant culture, history, and Jewish heritage of this captivating island. This four-day journey was filled with unique experiences and meaningful connections that left an indelible mark on us all.

Upon arriving in Havana, we were welcomed by Alain Rubio, our incredibly knowledgeable local guide, who introduced us to the heartbeat of Cuban culture and helped us peel away the many layers of this extremely complex country.

We were captivated by the energetic performance of students from Habana Compás Dance; a mesmerizing blend of dance and percussion that showcased the island's artistic talent. This school also provides free training and economic opportunities for young girls in the community, and we gifted them with new dance shoes for the entire dance company. Our visit to Fusterlandia, the whimsical mosaic art neighborhood created by José Fuster, left us in awe of his creativity and vibrant spirit.

Connecting with Cuba's Jewish Community

A significant piece of our mission was connecting with Cuba's Jewish community. At the Sephardic Center, we met the "Patch Network," a group of senior women dedicated to sewing challah covers to support themselves. The funds raised from sales help them put food on their tables; needless to say, we purchased their entire inventory. Our visit to the Jewish Cemetery was a poignant, as we visited the graves of relatives, recited Kaddish in front of its Holocaust Memorial, and reflected on our shared history.

We visited Temple Beth Sholom, the heart of Jewish life in Havana. This Reform synagogue and community center survives thanks to the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Cuban American Jews and visiting groups like ours. We brought along more butterflies for their Butterfly Project installation – started here in San Diego, every butterfly represents each of the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust.

Temple Beth Sholom also runs El Patronato, a “pharmacy” for the Jewish community. As medications are almost impossible to come by, El Patronato supplies medications free of charge – all donated by visitors like us. The shelves were not very full when we got there, but after our group donated suitcases filled with medications, we left hopeful that our supplies will go a long way toward supporting the community’s health and well-being.

Shabbat services at Temple Beth Sholom were particularly moving. Although there was no challah due to a flour shortage, we sang Hamotzi over old matzah, lit the candles and did the Brocha on the Bima, ate together, and sang the prayers as if we had been doing so forever. The congregation offered a special blessing to a couple making Aliyah, the first of 10 families leaving in the next several weeks. We quickly discovered that Jewish families are leaving Cuba and leaving fast – bringing the number of Jews across the country even lower than the 800 currently estimated. Hela, the synagogue's Vice President, shared her commitment to keeping her community strong despite their lack of resources and the rapid decline of Cuban Jews (“Jewbans,” as they called themselves).

Cultural, Educational, and Geopolitical Insights

Our exploration led us past historic Revolution Square, where Castro used to deliver his hours long speeches, and now the iconic Che Guevara mural stands watching as a testament to Cuba's storied history.

We visited the Old Havana Preschool, which provided a touching interaction with children receiving non-denominational education from nuns. Our donations of toys, preschool supplies, and especially socks and underwear were extremely needed and so appreciated.

We were told that we were the first Jewish group that had ever visited their school. This made us so proud, and this heartfelt experience underscored the importance of education and community support.

Traveling an hour outside of Havana, we explored Las Terrazas National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and pioneering eco-village (similar to a kibbutz). It was a refreshing escape into nature offering us a completely different perspective on life in Cuba. We lunched outside on a simple but delicious meal cooked entirely over the fire while listening to the beautiful sounds of the local musicians.

Back in Havana, a conversation with Mr. Camilo Garcia, a Cuban political science professor and former cultural attaché, provided valuable insights into women's rights and current affairs between Cuba and the U.S. We also met with Chargé d'Affaires’ Ziff and Joey Bristol, U.S. Embassy Political Economic Counselor, who led a thought-provoking discussion highlighting the complexities of Cuban society and U.S. Cuban relations. We learned the Chargé d'Affaires’ wife is Israeli, so we heard his opinion on relations with Israel and the current state of antisemitism in Cuba from both a personal and professional lens. It was interesting to hear varying opinions from multiple sources all on the same subject.  As we learned, Cuba is a complicated place.

Making Time for Fun

As with every mission and immersive travel experience organized through our Federation, even amidst the incredibly meaningful itinerary, we made sure to leave some room for fun. In Havana, we took a classic convertible car ride along the Malecón, ate incredible food in amazing Paladars (private, non-government owned restaurants), saw first-hand how cigars are made, and tasted Rum under the guidance of a Rum Sommelier. We smoked cigars, drank countless mojitos, laughed endlessly, and shopped like only 23 women can – fast and furiously.  

Reflections and Farewells

This mission was a life-changing experience, one that changes you for the better. Our level of appreciation for what we have, and the need we now feel to do more and give back will forever be a part of us. Our trip was a true testament to the immense impact of Federation’s work supporting Jewish communities around the world and reinforced our commitment to making a difference.

As we returned to San Diego, we carried with us the warmth of Cuban hospitality and its people, the resilience of its Jewish community, and the enduring friendships we forged. We cannot wait to get together again to reminisce and reflect once more.  

Thank you to the incredible group of women who joined us on this unforgettable mission! Plans are already underway for future immersive travel opportunities, and you are invited!

For questions or to sign up for our interest list, please contact Dana Koenig, Manager of Immersive Travel at danak@jewishinsandiego.org.


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You made this trip so memorable. Thank you so much for your hard work and planning. This is my first mission trip and I look forward to more.
This one will stay in my heart for a long long time!

Thank you to the Federation for organizing this trip which was not to overstate it, life changing and incredible. Having grown up along with the revolution in Cuba, there were concepts such as free education and Health Care of All which were appealing. In reality, without adequate infrastructure to build, improve and maintain these systems, it's only an idea and a cruel "joke" on the people of Cuba. Ahhh, but the people are so sweet and resilent. Thank you so much to Heidi and Dana for making this exploration into another country, culture and slice of Jewish life which was nothing short of fascinating. Yeah to immersive experiences! Fran Forman