43 Women Make it Their Mission to Help Cuba’s Jews

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During a humanitarian mission to Cuba in December, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Women’s Philanthropy affinity group met with local Jewish leaders and delivered donations to elderly and home-bound residents.

Robin Zappin, one of the three co-chairs of a recent humanitarian mission to Cuba organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Women’s Philanthropy affinity group, was not surprised to learn of the release of imprisoned American Jewish aid worker Alan Gross by the Cuban government and the thaw in diplomatic relations between the two nations just days after they returned home.
 
“Never underestimate the power of 43 Jewish women,” joked Zappin, who led the mission along with Joy Wilf Keiser and Sharon Freedman.
 
The women, who traveled to Cuba from Dec. 9 to Dec. 14, filled their itinerary with tours to historic, cultural and spiritual sites, conversations with leaders of the local Jewish community and home visits to the men and women who depend on these humanitarian missions for their health and well-being.
 
They carried 48 extra suitcases into Cuba, each filled to the brim with medicines and medical supplies, clothing, personal hygiene items, children’s toys and other items to enhance the quality of life for their fellow Jews. “We even brought 22 pounds of yeast for making challah,”  Keiser said, adding that “the women took great pride in delivering both necessities and niceties” to elderly and home-bound residents.
 
Freedman, who has traveled to Cuba before, knows how essential these missions are to the 1,400 Jews who call Cuba home. “The only way that they can survive is through our visits,” she said, explaining that “they depend on us for food and medicine.”
 
All three co-chairs believe that what made this mission so special was the opportunity to make a person-to-person connection with those who benefit from their donations and from the programs and services that Federation supports through its partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
 
“Although the Jewish community of Cuba has such limited resources, they are still an amazing, vibrant, strong and passionate people,” Freedman said.  “Even though they desperately need and appreciate all the donations from groups like ours, what they really love — and thrive from — are the personal interactions with visitors. Our group felt so lucky and honored to meet with so many people in the community.”
 
One of the group’s favorites was an 83-year-old woman named Pearl, who has lived in Cuba since 1957. “She raised three children in a small, dilapidated apartment yet she has remained cheerful and gracious,” Zappin said, adding that Pearl thanked the women for the presents they gave her but told them that “your smiles and your visits are my greatest gifts.”
 
While there were numerous emotional high and low points during the itinerary, one of the most poignant experiences for Keiser was the group’s visit to Havana’s Conservative synagogue — one of three remaining synagogues in Cuba’s capital city.
 
“Sharing Friday night Shabbat services, conducted in Spanish and Hebrew, and feeling the unity of spirit that comes from reciting the prayers of our Jewish tradition, was a highlight for us,” she said. The women sponsored a traditional Shabbat dinner for the congregants immediately following services. “The tables were filled with wonderful people — both Cuban and American — who broke bread together and learned more about each other’s lives,” she said.
 
Freedman was impressed by the tenacity of the Jews of Cuba who refuse to abandon their synagogues despite the lack of rabbis to lead services. “Members of the community have stepped up to the challenge so that Jews can continue to observe the rituals and traditions that are their birthright,” she said.
 
Freedman, Keiser and Zappin expressed exhilaration at watching the group of women they shepherded — they represented many generations and all levels of Federation involvement — bond with one another during the mission. “It was tremendously satisfying to watch these women learn first-hand the power of our gifts to Federation,” said Zappin.  “Federation, working in cooperation with its overseas partners, can get our people what they need to survive and thrive.”
 
For information about upcoming programs and events sponsored by Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy affinity group, call Marni Davis, director, at 215-832-0859 or email: mdavis@jfgp.org. For information about upcoming missions sponsored by Federation, call Pam Pearlmutter, mission manager-Philadelphia Israel Experience, at 215-832-0837 or email: ppearlmutter@jfgp.org.
 

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