Swampscott to Cuba for Jewish philanthropy
Posted: Friday, November 27, 2015 3:00 am
Gayla Cawley / The Daily Item
SWAMPSCOTT — Neil Donnenfeld took a trip many Americans don’t get to
take when he visited Cuba earlier this month.
Donnenfeld said the Cuban government requires a philanthropic or
cultural reason for a trip to the country, so he took the trip as part
of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to visit with leaders of the
Jewish community in Cuba who are living under the communist system.
Donnenfeld is a past president of the Jewish Family Service and is
currently the treasurer of the Marblehead Jewish Community Center (JCC).
He is also a member of Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore, a temple.
Donnenfeld took the trip with fellow members of the CJP and a member of
the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). He said the JDC works with the
Jewish Federation System around the world to provide emotional,
spiritual, financial and humanitarian aid to Jewish people in need
around the world.
He said the resources available to Jewish people in Cuba are extremely
limited, so he and his group brought Hanukkah toys for children as well
as medicine. He said the group also provided financial assistance for
the chicken dinner that is held for the Jewish people every Friday night.
With a Cuban population of 12 million, Donnenfeld said there are only
about 1,200 Jews remaining in the country, which is down from a Jewish
population that got as high as 15,000 at one point.
Donnenfeld said he was nudged by his girlfriend to take the trip to Cuba
and he eventually made the four-day visit from Nov. 12-15.
“It’s fascinating and close by,” Donnenfeld said of Cuba. (I had a)
desire to reach out to my common culture — my Jewish family in Cuba —
and to help and tell them what’s going on in the world.”
Donnenfeld said certain experiences stuck with him from the trip. The
night before he set off for Cuba, he said he saw on the news that three
Chinese warships had sailed into the Havana harbor. When he got there,
he saw the ships in person and asked a tour guide about them. At first,
the guide didn’t acknowledge the ships were there but then told him they
were to commemorate the 55th anniversary of a treaty between China and Cuba.
Donnenfeld said there has been instances of the U.S. and other countries
contesting the legitimacy of some of the man-made islands in the South
China sea. He said there have been some instances of the U.S. entering
into those territorial waters of China surrounding those man-made
islands. He said he found it a little reminiscent of the Cuban Missile
Crisis for China to have warships within 90 miles of the U.S.
Another instance that stuck out to him was walking into one of the
temples in Havana and having the female president of that temple showing
special interest in his group from Boston, saying she loved the city. He
said he was further surprised when she asked if there was anyone from
Swampscott in the group.
Donnenfeld said the woman told the group that four years ago, a group
from a Swampscott temple, Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore,
showed up unannounced with a torah as a gift.
“It was a recognition of the common bond of the Jewish people,”
Donnenfeld said of the torah.
Later in the trip, Donnenfeld said he was wearing a New York Yankees
Thurman Munson jersey and was approached by an elderly Cuban man who
started a conversation about baseball with him. He said the man was
speaking in Spanish, but as he is fluent in the language, this wasn’t a
barrier. He said the man opened up the conversation by saying he didn’t
believe Babe Ruth is baseball’s greatest player. Instead, the Cuban man
said that distinction should go to Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams,
as he saw Williams play in Cuba in 1946.
“It opened up the opportunity to have a conversation with a real Cuban
old-timer,” Donnenfeld said.
As the trip had a philanthropic reason, Donnenfeld said he kept a
pocketful of CUCs, the Cuban currency, with him and handed them out to
children. When he offered a few of those to the man, he said the Cuban
looked at him and said he was a member of the Communist party. He said
the man told him “I’m very grateful for the gesture but my country gives
me everything I need.”
Donnenfeld was struck by a cutting edge nightclub that he went to. He
said the club is evidence that the country, which he said doesn’t have
Internet access most places, is rapidly moving towards the future.
Donnenfeld said with tensions easing between the U.S. and Cuba, with the
trade embargo recently lifted, that it won’t be much longer that a
philanthropic reason is needed to visit the country.
“Cuba is going to be an immensely interesting country to watch over the
next couple of years,” Donnenfeld said. “With China and the U.S. vying
for economic and political power and with the Castros (Fidel and Raul)
being in their late 80’s, dramatic change is axlmost inevitable.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org?
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