It started with a mutual fascination with Cuba, especially its tiny Jewish community.
Now two Jewish women, separated by a generation in age and more than 760 miles in physical location, have become best friends and have turned their love of Cuba into a thriving tour business that has brought thousands of people to the island. And they’re about to coordinate the first — at least in Castro times —kosher tour of Cuba.
Marla Whitesman, 47, of Flint, Mich., wasn’t thrilled about her first trip to Cuba in December 2000. She went as a favor to her husband, Barney, but from the moment she set foot on the island, she says, she was “smitten” with everything about it.
“I came home thinking I had to work to get the Jews off the island,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t do that, so I decided to work to make their lives better on the island. I did a Web search for Jews in Cuba and saw an article on a B’nai B’rith site. That’s how I met Miriam.”
Miriam Saul, 64, of Atlanta, was born in Cuba but left when she was 11. She had returned in December 2000 with her sister and brother-in-law — the same time as Marla, though their paths never crossed. It was her first visit back in more than 40 years. She wrote about the experience, and B’nai B’rith published her piece.
Whitesman emailed Saul after reading her story. “I don’t even know you, but I feel like I already do!” she said.
The two women spoke by phone. Then Whitesman went to Atlanta to visit Saul, and the two felt an immediate connection.
“We probably knew each other in another life,” Saul joked.
Miriam Saul’s parents immigrated to Cuba in the 1920s, her mother from Russia and her father from Poland.
After the revolution, Saul’s cousins had all left. Her parents asked relatives in Atlanta if they could take her and her older sister. The girls left in 1960, the last children in their family to depart.
“When we said goodbye to my parents, I didn’t know if I would ever see them again,” she said. “It was only much later, when I became a parent myself, that I could understand the anguish they must have felt.”
Luckily, Saul’s parents were able to join her just a few months later.
“They went to Jamaica and renounced their Cuban citizenship,” she said. Because they had been born in Europe, they were able to obtain immigrant visas for the United States.
Saul said she had no memories of Cuba before she returned in 2000, because her departure was so traumatic. She had forgotten all the Spanish she knew.
“After about five days on the island, I started getting flashbacks,” she said. “At the airport on the way home I started crying, and I cried for three months. I decided the best way to deal with my emotions was to go back to Cuba, and to bring others with me.”
On her second trip, she took her mother, father and brother. Then, through the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, she started leading groups.
Travel to Cuba limited
Since the United States has no diplomatic relations with Cuba, Americans interested in traveling to the island have to cut through significant red tape. Tourism is not permitted, but groups planning visits for religious, educational, scientific or cultural purposes may apply for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Department of Treasury. Travelers on these “People to People” trips have strict spending limits and may not bring anything back from Cuba other than art and informational materials.
Working through licensed organizations, Saul began leading group tours for Jewish Americans to interact with the 1,500 Jews of Cuba.
Before long, she was leading a group every six months. The travelers brought thousands of pounds of supplies to Cuba: Judaica (including hagadahs in Hebrew, English and Spanish), school supplies, baby items, art supplies. Before every trip, she would spend long hours collecting, classifying and packaging the materials. Whitesman flew to Atlanta to help.
Whitesman began leading groups in 2006, for Jewish federations, university Hillel groups, synagogues, and families celebrating bar or bat mitzvahs. She arranged for as many as 10 in a year, sometimes doing four groups back to back.
The women saw that people on both sides of the “90-mile gap” between Cuba and the United States were starved for meaningful interactions.
Aiding the Jewish community
Whitesman’s and Saul’s groups brought a ner tamid (eternal light) to the Jewish community in Guantanamo; brought a lulav and etrog for Sukkot to Santa Clara; started Hebrew classes in Santiago de Cuba; and helped restore Jewish cemeteries. They provided “Macabi Cuba” jerseys to Cuban athletes, which they still proudly wear years later.
On one trip, Saul met a man who wanted to build a Holocaust memorial in Cuba. He asked her to bring something that had survived the Holocaust.
In Washington, D.C., for a bar mitzvah, Saul visited the National Holocaust Museum to see what she could beg. She wound up with some cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto.
“It took an enormous amount of work to get clearance to bring them to Cuba,” she said. One of the stones went to Havana. The others are in Santa Clara, in a monument that is the centerpiece of the newest Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere.
Whitesman said a large majority of Cuba’s Jews left after the revolution. Most of those who stayed intermarried and assimilated; it was difficult to be a good Communist and practice religion.
In 1992, the government eased up on the restrictions on religion. Younger Jews began searching for their religious identity, eager to learn about their roots.
There are three synagogues in Havana, including one that houses the island’s only mikvah, and synagogues in Guantanamo, Santiago and Camaguey. The newest synagogue is in Santa Clara. In other towns, Jewish residents gather in private homes.
“They have no full-time rabbis, cantors or mohels, yet they embrace their Judaism,” Whitesman said. “A rabbi from Mexico visits Cuba a few times a year. But the community has become very self-sufficient, proud and knowledgeable.”
“They celebrate all the holidays. There’s a Sunday school with 150 children, and adult classes as well. There are Hadassah and B’nai B’rith groups, and a group of teens and young adults who do Israeli dancing,” she said.
Whitesman and Saul say emphatically that there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. “There never was,” Saul said. “There is great national pride in the community. The people say they are Cubans first and Jews second.”
Saul says seeing how the Jews in Cuba are holding on to their heritage despite daily hardships has a profound effect on Jewish visitors. “After every trip, they tell me it makes them want to be more Jewish,” she said.
Obtaining a license
After leading hundreds of trips, Whitesman and Saul decided to form Other Cuban Journeys, a travel agency that would combine Jewish and People to People experiences. In January 2013, their company received its own license from the federal government.
Other Cuban Journeys will customize a trip for any special interest, such as art and architecture, history, literature, music, sustainable living, education or medicine — even pre-1960 classic cars, which abound in Cuba because most Cubans were forbidden to purchase new cars and American cars were embargoed by the United States.
“We take people to our home away from home,” Whitesman said. “We are hands-on from start to finish. We meet with individuals and come up with new people and places to visit.”
Now they are about to reach another milestone: the first kosher group tour to Cuba since the 1950s.
“There is a kosher butcher in Cuba, but it’s for Cubans, not visitors, and it is not certified to the satisfaction of the very Orthodox,” Whitesman said, adding that she knows only one Cuban who keeps strictly kosher, the president of the Jewish community.
She felt bad when she had Orthodox participants on her tours; they would load their luggage with canned and packaged food and aluminum foil to cook the limited foods they were able to eat.
For the kosher endeavor, the women joined forces with Hersh Taubenfeld of Aventura, Fla., who has longtime experience leading kosher tours and cruises, and Ben Greszes, an Orthodox Cuban Jew from Long Island with a keen sense of the Orthodox community’s needs.
They all met with managers of the Melia hotel chain and convinced them that a kosher option would be successful because Jewish groups form such a large percentage of travelers to Cuba.
One of the restaurants at Melia La Habana will be certified kosher and cholov Yisrael (dairy products under kosher supervision) by Rabbi Levi Teitlebaum, director of the Ottawa Vaad Hakashrut. It will serve Other Cuban Journeys’ kosher travelers exclusively.
The inaugural Glatt Kosher Mission to Cuba takes place Dec. 9-16, costing $4,995 per person. Whitesman and Saul are planning more kosher trips in 2014, and will also create custom trips for synagogues and Jewish organizations.
(This article was first published by the Detroit Jewish News.)