New Jew in Town: There Are Jews In Cuba, And They Need Backpacks

I’ve learned a lot since moving to Minneapolis.
I’ve learned that when driving you should turn into an ice skid.  I’ve learned that walking across a frozen lake during intense wind gusts is a terrible idea, and I have the bruises to prove it. I’ve learned not to be scared of people in ski masks, as they’re not robbing a bank, they’re just cold.
I’ve also learned that I know nothing about being Jewish.
The city I grew up in had two synagogues.  One was reform, and one was even more reform – their siddur opened left to right and they served crawfish at events. When I moved to my husband’s hometown, I experienced my first Conservative congregation, but the only difference I noticed is that the songs had different melodies and there was less likely to be a guitar played by a fresh-from-camp teenager.
The closest I had come to a Kosher restaurant in the United States was in New York. My husband and I stopped to take a picture of what I thought was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen: a Kosher Subway.IMG_3432
The only Orthodox people I had ever “met” were the Wall Street bankers we saw wearing kippot and tzitzit on that same trip to New York. My husband and I nudged each other, excited that not only were we seeing a Jewish person that we didn’t know (that doesn’t happen in the South), but that this Jewish person could walk freely down the street, Judaism on display, and not have to worry about being converted every other block. (People have attempted to help Yoni and I find Jesus while going for a walk in our Shreveport neighborhood; while walking into the Jewish Film Festival in Baton Rouge; while studying in a library; and countless other places – and that was without any identifying Jewish “accessories”.)
I also had no idea that Jews went on missions. Jews went to summer camp and performed embarrassing skits. Jews went to Israel and brought back Hebrew Dave Matthews Band shirts. Sure, I went on a mitzvah day trip with my camp every summer, but I had never heard of a Jewish person going on a mission. As far as I knew, missions were for my Christian friends and involved spreading the word of Jesus.
I have missions on the brain because, as it turns out, Jews do go on missions. Federation is in the middle of a season of missions —  a group returned from Morocco just before the New Year (read about their experience here), and the Harry Kay Leadership Institute mission left for Kiev and Israel on Sunday. The purpose of these missions is to deliver much needed supplies and see firsthand the work Federation’s partner agencies are accomplishing.
This Wednesday, another mission leaves for Cuba, which leads me to another thing I’ve learned since moving to Minneapolis and working for Federation: There are Jews in Cuba. And they need backpacks.display_image
Part of Federation’s work in Cuba involves saving the country’s poorest Jews. According to our partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the average salary in Cuba does not cover basic necessities such as food and medicine. Our mission participants have been collecting supplies to bring with them to Cuba, but recently received an urgent request from JDC: bring 120 backpacks for our Jewish students.
The country is in the middle of a rebirth of Jewish life, which was eradicated during Communist rule.  Currently, approximately 1,400 of the 11 million residents of Cuba are Jewish and JDC, with Federation’s support, works diligently to revitalize Jewish life – in part by operating the country’s only Jewish Sunday School. The poverty-stricken students at this school can’t afford backpacks, a necessity that we couldn’t imagine attending school without.
Last week, Federation put together a last minute backpack drive, and thanks to our committed community — especially students in our day schools and congregational schools — were able to buy all 120 backpacks!
With your continuing support, Jewish communities in Cuba and around the world will have access to the tools necessary to obtain a Jewish education – and hopefully come out of it equipped with more knowledge than I did.