Cuba and Community

Susan Kirshenbaum Articles, Community, Travel — By on August 18, 2011 8:04 am


When you travel to Cuba with the JCCSF, you can’t help but have a community experience. Last May, my husband and I joined the JCCSF for a humanitarian and religious mission to Havana and Camagüey. Some folks brought their own communities, including a congregation from Lafayette, CA. As a JCCSF staff member and spouse, we’re already a part of a community. There were many communities on this trip. San Francisco’s  NPR community was represented through our trip scholar, Michael Krasny, and his wife, Leslie. I listen to his radio show almost every day, so it was especially exciting to hear Michael talk about our trip just days after we returned. On air he interviewed Ariel, our trip leader, and discussed Jewish Cuba, which is a concept most people don’t consider. There were plenty of call-ins and it was a provocative show.

The trip was well-choreographed, but for me, not without a little hitch. Our stopover flight was cancelled so our luggage did not arrive in time for our early charter. What an awful moment of realization. We were on our way to an “illegal” destination (the US State Department prohibits travel to Cuba by private citizens) and had no way for our luggage to catch up. It’s good to be reminded of how little we really need. So that was the beginning of joining and forming our trip community. Twenty-seven other folks traveling in our group had suitcases chock-full of provisions to donate to Cuban Jewish congregations, which included toothbrushes, underwear, medications and vitamins. And we were some of the first recipients. That intimate exchange helped bring us together immediately, and made us infamous as “the people who lost their luggage.”

And what an easygoing group we had. I tend not to be a group traveler. But the people on this trip were open, curious and good sports, not complainers. Together we bore bland food, tropical heat and the utmost sin on a trip: next to nothing to buy. But we mixed it up, talked with each other and friendly locals, and wandered around in clusters and clumps. We took loads of photos of the natural and decaying beauty everywhere.

We shared the experience of visiting Cuba’s synagogues and cemeteries, where we met staff and congregations, handed over our donations and ate some meals together. These were lively little communities, recently revived, and the less visited Camagüey was particularly grateful for our attentions.

We delved deeper into the country and toured important sites that helped us understand the history and culture of Cuba, including their fine museums, a cigar factory, churches, artists’ homes and studios.


Together we partook in the regional dance and singing, including Salsa lessons, a water ballet in our hotel pool, and an Afro-Cuban dinner dance and performance that we joined on stage at a pirate bar in Camagüey. All the while, we were sipping rum drinks, smoking cigars and swimming—even in the rain, experiencing everything Cuba has to offer.

Though the basic necessities are provided, life for locals is hard. There’s not much food, and very few creature comforts. Despite that, people were warm and easy-going, receptive, full of life and culture, and everywhere there was their own special brand of music, dancing, singing and art. Ordinarily you can’t get inside of Cuban residents’ lives very much because of the separation between tourists and locals. But that was one big reason we were all on this trip—to get behind the scenes and gain insights as a part of the Jewish community.

It’s hard for Americans to understand and process Cuba, including the changes underway with Raul Castro. We were all there during a moment in history and we were keenly aware of that. In my mind’s eye I still see the lovely old cars gleaming brilliantly against a background of pastel pealing paint. People outside, talking and playing music. No cell phones. Few computers. Books everywhere. Work done by hand.

When we returned to San Francisco, our group reunited for a meal and slideshow where we reminisced, compared notes, drank mojitos and ate Ropas Viejas. We felt warm and connected. It felt good.


Tags: ,


  1. Ariel says:

    Beautiful article and pictures. I hope to see you again as part of the JCCSF Travel again

Leave a Comment