At its closest point, Cuba is less than 100 miles away from the U.S., but travel to the island nation has been off-limits to most Americans since the late 1960s, leaving several generations without the opportunity to experience the sandy white beaches and vibrant culture that Hemingway immortalized in text.
While many of these Cold War-era sanctions remain in place, restrictions are beginning to ease. Road Scholar was recently granted a People-to-People educational license to operate and offer cross-cultural, lifelong learning experiences in Cuba, becoming one of a handful of organizations that is now able to offer such educational travel programs.
Stacie Fasola, the Director of Public and Media Relations here at Road Scholar, recently returned from the inaugural program date for “Shalom Cuba: Exploring Jewish Heritage,” which gave participants the chance to meet and interact with members of the local communities and discover the culture and dynamics of this incredible country. Here’s what she had to say about her adventures:
Stacie (right center in black dress) with the participants from the program, members of the Cuban choir, and their Group Leader, Raul, on the far right.
What did it feel like to be embarking on an adventure through Cuba, a country that had been off-limits to most U.S. travelers for so long?
I’ve followed news in Cuba over the years, including the Mariel Boat Lift, Elian Gonzales and Fidel transferring power to Raul. America has a large Cuban population, so it’s hard to miss what’s going on there. I’ve traveled to several Caribbean countries, but Cuba was the only one off-limits to me, and frankly, the only one whose politics I know and follow. A friend of mine who possesses a Jamaican passport traveled to Cuba a few years ago. She raved about how it was so different from any place she’d ever been. I vowed several years ago that if I ever got the opportunity to go to Cuba, I’d take it.
Your group visited several communities during this inaugural program. What did you learn?
We met with the president of a synagogue and learned about the same challenges that all of the synagogues faced, chief among them being funding. Money for building materials comes from external donors around the world. In Santa Clara, for example, the synagogue was built from the ground up by David Tacher Romano, a local leader in the Jewish community. We visited several art studios and schools and interacted with non-Jewish Cubans. It was interesting to learn about their goals, hopes and dreams, which of course are similar to young people around the world. Very few of the people we met spoke English or had ever left Cuba.
One of the highlights of this program is getting to meet and talk with Jewish community leaders. What makes Judaic practices in Cuba unique?
What was so surprising to me is that they really seemed to be making it up as they go along. Ninety percent of the Jewish population fled when Castro assumed power, and they didn’t appear to leave much behind. There is very little Judaica; for example, the Torahs were donated by other countries, as were many of the menorahs in the home of Rebecca Langus Rodriquez, the president of the local Jewish congregation in Cienfuegos. No one spoke or read Yiddish or Hebrew. All of the texts were translated phonetically and into Spanish. There was no Rabbi on the island.
This being the first program of its kind, you travelled with a small number of participants. What was the most memorable activity or excursion for the group?
In Santa Clara, we traveled to a cemetery and met with David. He described the symbolism behind the Holocaust memorial there. One of the participants, Shirley, (she was returning to Cuba—she came on her honeymoon with her husband in 1952) was asked to read a poem that David recited. Raul translated for us. It was a really moving poem about peace, love and forgiveness. Shirley got a bit choked up reading it, and I noticed several other participants wiping away tears as she read (keep in mind we were there during Rosh Hashanah). It was a very emotional moment, and one I think the group will never forget.
Interested in taking this program or one of our other Cuban adventures? Visit www.roadscholar.org and search “Cuba.”