Posted Online: March 08, 2013, 3:00 am

Local Jewish Federation leader "appreciates" Cuba

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By Leon Lagerstam,

Photo: Submitted
Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, wanted to ride in a 1957 Chevy while visiting Havana, Cuba, during a recent mission trip, but had to settle for this 1957 Ford Fairlane taxi.
Photo: Submitted
Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities visited Beth Shalom Synagogue (El Patronato) in Havana, Cuba, during a recent humanitarian mission trip to the country.
ROCK ISLAND -- Soap, toilet paper and toilet seats were hard to find in Cuba, and anti-Semitism couldn't be found anywhere, according to Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities.

Mr. Ross recently returned from a six-day humanitarian mission to Cuba with 24 other federation directors from across the U.S. He said they decided to hold their annual meeting in Cubato show support for the Jewish community there.

The Jewish federation directors, representing smaller U.S. cities, brought 3,000 pounds of supplies, including clothing, medications, first-aid kits, reading glasses, diapers and other items.

"We had to hand-deliver everything, because of the embargo that's been in place since 1963," Mr. Ross said.

The supplies they brought exceeded allowable limits by $3,000, but were covered by cash donations Mr. Ross had raised.

The group also brought 100 bags of school supplies to hand out to children, whether the kids were Jewish or not."We also gave them shampoo, soap and handed out baseballs," Mr. Ross said.

Cuba has a rationing system, but it doesn't cover basic needs, which are in short supply, he said.

"It was an overwhelming experience to see how much help we could bring," Mr. Ross said. "It was an eye-opener. I hadn't really ever given much thought about Jews in Cuba."

But a famous Talmud verse tells Jews they are responsible for each other, and "we put that into practice in Cuba on a person-to-person basis," he said. "We bumped into other mission workers representing other agencies and groups, but nobody brought as much as we did."

"Cubans are a proud people and very generous," Mr. Ross said. "They will share what we brought with the non-Jewish community. Two of the synagogues we visited in Havana have small pharmacies, and they serve anyone from their community.

"People we met were friendly to Americans and wish our governments had better relations," he said. "What I saw was a tremendous long-term potential in Cuba, especially if the embargo would end."

He said he also saw "an up-close view of a small Jewish community attempting to stay vital after 54 years living under Communist rule. Jewish leaders have overcome many obstacles and are committed to staying in the country and keeping Judaism there."

As many as 15,000 Jews populated Cuba in the 1950s, "many of them Holocaust victims," Mr. Ross said. "But when Castro took power in 1959, about 90 percent of them fled the country."

What remained were a lot of old cars, he said. "The majority of them are 1953 to 1957 Chevys." As much as he had hoped to get a ride in a 1957 Chevy while in Cuba, he had to settle for a '57 Ford Fairlane taxi.

He also noticed a lot of soap dispensers in restrooms, but no soap in them.

Mr. Ross said his group stayed in Havana and visited with leaders of the three synagogues there. Representatives from the Cuban cities of Santiago and Guantanamo also drove cross country to spend time with the visiting delegates.

Mr. Ross said there are many beautiful churches in Havana, and an impressive-looking cemetery, where about 40 burials are done daily.

He said he also visited an old Kosher butcher shop, "which was the only business not taken away by the government back then. That one shop provides all of the Kosher meats for the Jewish community."

Cuba slowly is moving to bring in more entrepreneurs, and is relaxing some rules to allow more Cubans to visit other countries, making it easier for young Jews there to participate in a Birthright Israel program, which provides trips to Israel for Jewish students who haven't been there before, Mr. Ross said.

"What I didn't see was any discrimination or anti-Semitism," he said.

Mr. Ross plans to make a Power Point presentation and talk to groups interested in learning more about Cuba and its Jewish population. For information, visit

"We promised to spread the word about how hard they are trying to maintain a Jewish identity in Cuba, and it's been our mission to help Jews anywhere in the world, remembering that we can't solely concentrate on Israel and neglect the needs of Jews elsewhere."

It also gives Americans a deeper appreciation of all we have, Mr. Ross said. "Americans take so much for granted, and don't fully appreciate what we have until seeing for ourselves how other countries don't have so much."

One of his fellow delegates sent Mr. Ross an email saying how she "will never take a toilet seat or toilet paper for granted again."

A fellow traveler echoed those comments, emailing how she "felt guilty for my absolute joy at finding toilets with seats, and free soft toilet paper at the Miami airport."

Both emailers added that when they got home, they took long looks around their houses and thought about how nice it would be to send more supplies to their new Cuban friends.