By Sally J. Ling | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
As a young girl in the 1950s, Natalie Pelavin used to visit South Florida from Flint, Mich., with her parents.
While they took a side trip to Cuba, she remained behind, but she recalls her father’s words: “If you take Spanish in high school, I’ll take you to Cuba.”
When high school arrived, Cuba had transitioned to communism and her father’s promise went unfulfilled. But in May, Pelavin, who lives west of Delray Beach, was able to fulfill her childhood dream when she joined a group from the Levis Jewish Community Center west of Boca Raton that traveled to Cuba for humanitarian and religious purposes.
“I wanted to see what the country looked like, meet the people and was curious what life was like being in a small Jewish community. It was interesting to see how the people had made a life for themselves. Some Jews stayed in Cuba when they could have left; that was very impressive,” Pelavin said.
Another group will visit Cuba in 2005 to support Cuban Jews and ascertain how they can best help them. The trip, originally scheduled for October, was postponed because of the hurricanes. Anyone interested, including residents of central and northern Palm Beach County, can go.
The trips, sponsored by the Cultural Arts Department of the JCC, started five years ago. This will be the fourth trip to Cuba.
“After 9-11 we didn’t want to go very far. It came to our attention that Cuba had a rich culture and that there were still 1,500 Jews in the country—1,200 in Havana,” said Susana Flaum, cultural arts director for the JCC.
“When the revolution came, Castro didn’t close the synagogues or churches but the people were discouraged, and if they went to worship, they wouldn’t get jobs or be educated in the colleges. Many of the buildings closed, and many Jews assimilated into the community or moved to the U.S. and to other countries,” she said. “When the pope went to Cuba, people were revived and religion was accepted again.”
The group will travel under the auspices of Jewish Solidarity. Founded by a Miami couple and licensed by the Department of the Treasury, its mission is to provide solidarity between the U.S. and Cuban Jewish communities.
The organization has permission from the Cuban government to plan trips with a humanitarian and religious emphasis. Travelers stay at the Charter Hotel in Havana, and along with their work with the Jewish community, take side trips for sightseeing. The cost of the six-day trip is $2,300 a person.
“People are curious to see Cuba because it’s close, safe, has a fascinating culture and wonderful food and music. But our main mission is to help the Jewish community,” Flaum said. “We find out what they need in the synagogue, whether it’s religious apparel, educational materials or medical needs. We take some nonprescription items with us in an extra suitcase and donate them to the Patronato, a store the Jews open to the Cuban people for free.
“We will meet with the Cuban community and celebrate Shabbat, services on Friday night, with about 200 people from the Jewish community.”
Boca Raton residents Elisa Greenberg, a Cuban-American, and her husband, Dr. Lester Greenberg, who own dental practices in Boca Raton and Tampa, plan to go on the trip. They have been to Cuba on medical and humanitarian missions several times and have gone on one previous JCC-sponsored trip.
“We hope to get a clearer idea of what Cuban life in general and Jews, in particular, is like. They’ve requested things that are important in celebrating [High Holy Days],such as prayer books, and things for the children. We hope to provide these,” Elisa Greenberg said.
People can sign up for the next trip until Feb. 28. Call Susana Flaum at 561-852-3254.