El Joint in Cuba

by Raquel Benguiat

Participating in Shabbat services at El Patronato, a beautiful synagogue in Havana, Cuba, was the highlight of my last traveling adventure. My experience included chanting Shabbat prayers among dozens of Jewish locals and visitors, weaving in sections in Spanish sparkled with a charming Cuban accent. The services were led by a Cuban young woman and man, and at the end we listened to the array of programs offered to the local Jewish community (from Hebrew classes to Israeli dancing workshops). All these were tangible proof to me that El Joint (as the Cubans warmly refer to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) has been able to effectively work with the community to revitalize Jewish life in Cuba.

Through my work at the Jewish Federation, I have had the opportunity to experience the impact of El Joint in Israel and heard about their work all over the world – from responding to crisis in Haiti to caring for our seniors in Ukraine. I always felt proud that Federation supports El Joint, an organization that clearly embodies the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another”. Still, it wasn’t until now that I could appreciate how their operations are sustainable and culturally competent. El Joint has been revitalizing Jewish life in Cuba from within.

I learned that due to the Cuban Revolution there was a mass Jewish exodus in the late 50’s and it was not until the beginning of the 90’s that El Joint was asked to intervene and help keep Cuba’s Jewish community alive. Since then, El Joint has worked using the community’s strengths, rather than implementing their own way of “doing Jewish”. Their role is to provide vital resources to make Jewish life happen in Cuba – from offering transportation to attend services and programs to serving free Shabbat dinners.

Other valuable resources are the representatives of El Joint on the ground who live and work in the community. I met a charismatic young Argentinean couple, Alejandra and Luciano, who are dedicated to stimulating and strengthening Jewish life. Cuban Jews feel comfortable interacting with them as they sharesimilar cultural values. From casual conversations, I learned that their purpose is to empower its members to take leadership and be in charge of all that “happens Jewish” in their community. I believe this is a vital sustainability strategy of El Joint. By empowering local leaders to take ownership, it prevents the community from becoming dependent on El Joint’s presence and services. During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet these dedicated and passionate Jewish leaders and was extremely impressed with how empowered they are as they shared their insights on Jewish life in Cuba. It gave me the impression that El Joint and these leaders have created a partnership that is dependent on resources that would not be availableotherwise, but without crossing the fine line in which a partnership becomes paternalistic.

Now that I have witnessed how El Joint does its work in a sustainable and cultural competent way, I believe in their mission more than ever. While I was in Cuba experiencing how El Joint revitalizes a Jewish community, I learned about the extreme weather conditions in Eastern Europe and how El Joint was literally saving lives there simultaneously. El Joint has wide arms and a reach that makes it possible to care for all our brothers and sisters who are in need, wherever they are. That is why I encourage everyone who believes in the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another” to become familiar with the amazing work that El Joint does on our behalf. At any given moment, on any given day, for millions of people around the globe, El Joint is there.

Raquel Benguiat is Development Manager at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

Are you interested in experiencing Cuba through the JDC lens with other young adults? Take part in Inside Jewish Cuba, JDC’s National Jewish Young Professionals Trip to Havana, from August 30-September 3, 2012. For more information, contact globalservice@jdcny.org