Michael and Phyllis Moscovich in Cuba. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
When community lay leaders Michael and Phyllis Moscovich were planning their most recent mission trip, they never imagined discovering Jewish ties to former Cuban president Fidel Castro, and the vibrant community that exists on the island.
Michael, a committed volunteer with Jewish Federation and a board member for several years, is currently a member of Federation’s Israel and overseas affairs committee, as well as its Partnership2Gether committee. He and Phyllis also jointly chair the Ethiopian students internship program. The couple’s shared passion for travel and interest in Jewry across the Diaspora has motivated them to participate in nine previous Federation missions. Last October, they participated in their first American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) mission to Havana, with a group of like-minded community members from North Carolina.
“I wanted to see Cuba before the regime changed and am always interested in Jewish communities elsewhere,” explained Michael.
JDC missions provide participants with a highly personal perspective on daily life for Jews and others in more than 70 countries in which JDC operates.
Cuban Jews have lived on the island for centuries, some tracing their ancestry as far back as the late 15th century to “anusim” who fled the Spanish Inquisition. In a February 2007 story, the New York Times estimated that there were about 1,500 identified Jews living in Cuba, most of them (about 1,100) living in Havana. The article added, “This small Jewish presence [in 2007] is in stark contrast to the bustling community that existed before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In those days, there were 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone.”
JDC’s re-entry into Cuba in 1991 has sparked a Jewish resurgence on the island and a growing awareness of the community and its rich history. As it does elsewhere across the globe, JDC, in partnership with the local community, provides assistance to Cuba’s Jews, develops Jewish leaders and has prompted a revitalization of Jewish life. Working with JDC, the community has established a Jewish summer camp, adult education, an Israeli dance festival and communal holiday celebrations.
The mission visited all the operating synagogues in Havana, the Jewish cemetery and all the major tourist sites. “We met several times with members of the community, highlighted for us by a lunch with an unassuming fellow who spoke little English,” shared Michael. “By the end of lunch, we had determined he had been Fidel’s personal bodyguard for over a decade.”
One of the more surprising revelations of the trip for Michael and Phyllis is that there never seems to have been overt antisemitism in Cuba. “Fidel never even knew our guy was Jewish, until he attended a Chanukah celebration at one of the synagogues where one of the members mentioned that his bodyguard was a synagogue member,” Michael remarked. Also noteworthy is the fact that the young people are allowed to make aliyah, when almost no one else is allowed exit visas.
The opportunity to immerse themselves in the community was enlightening. “My expectations were all met. Seeing Havana, [getting a taste of] the regime, getting a sense of what 45 years of communism can do to an otherwise colorful and vibrant country,” said Michael. More remarkable from his perspective was “seeing the Jewish community and how it is sustaining itself.”
Michael and Phyllis took away with them enduring memories of the tenacity of the Jewish community and the vibrancy of the entire population, despite the hardships the regime has brought on its people. “It was great to travel with similarly committed Jews, to see the great work JDC has done, to meet our brethren, to see again what communism does and doesn’t do, to see it crumbling however slowly,” Michael explained. “The experience re-confirmed my personal commitment to the community, here and overseas.”
Federation invites you to participate in a mission trip to Vienna, Budapest and Israel, with mission chairs Anita and Arnold Silber, from Oct. 11-22, 2015. Visit the Israel and Overseas Experiences page on Federation’s website (jewishvancouver.com) for more information about opportunities to visit Israel and experience Jewish life in communities around the world. You can also donate to this year’s campaign via the website.
– This article was originally published in eYachad, and is reprinted with permission.