Howard E. Charish is  Executive Vice President of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and  is a Wexner Graduate Fellows/Davidson Scholars faculty member.  He can be reached at

It was during a recent mission to Cuba that I understood a phenomenon that I had experienced during my professional career but had not consciously identified.  If I could summarize it in one word, it would be RESILIENCE.

In an address marking his 60 years of service to the Jewish community, Ted Comet defined resilience as ”the remarkable human ability to bounce back from defeat and sometimes bounce back even higher than before.”

A brief history of Jewish life in Cuba: the first major Jewish immigration occurred in 1906 and by the mid-1950s there were 15,000 Jews in Cuba.  In the early days, many of the settlers thought that Cuba was a stopping-off point before reaching the U.S.  However, they found hospitable conditions and soon established businesses and community institutions.

Then the revolution came in 1959 and the reality was neither what they had experienced previously, nor what they had expected.  In less than 20 years, only 800 Cuban Jews remained.  The years between 1960 and 1990 have been described as “cultural and religious amnesia.”

However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba accepted religious activity in 1992, and a revival started.  The Jewish community created a Sunday school in Havana, and the training of professionals began who would become the core of Sunday school teachers.  Today the school has 50 children and last year eight children were trained to read from the Torah -- something that had never happened in Cuba.

Havana has three synagogues – Conservative, Orthodox and Sephardic.  In one of our briefings we learned about what a Cuban minyan is – seven men, two Torah scrolls and G-d.  Nevertheless, even through the roughest times, the Orthodox synagogue, Adath Israel, kept its doors open.  Now there are 125 member families or about 400 people affiliated.  .

As I reflect upon my travels on behalf of the Jewish community, I recall many inspiring moments, including: dancing with a Torah during Simchat Torah in Moscow at the height of the Refusenik movement; singing Hatikvah at the Women’s Division Campaign opening in Madrid 500 years after the Inquisition; and attending Shabbat services in Gondar, Ethiopia, and realizing that the same weekly parasha was being read there as at home.

Assuredly, we are currently experiencing one of the most challenging times in our communal and personal lives.  Yet each of us carries a memory bank upon which to draw experiences of elasticity and hardiness.  For me, remembering the resilience of individuals and communities that prevailed during the most calamitous times provides a sustaining lens of hope.