Tara is a Wexner Heritage Westchester 07 alumna and is the founder of Marketing Matters, Ltd., a N.Y. based marketing consulting firm specializing in non-profits.  Tara also serves as a parent advisor to J-Teen Leadership, a teen-led community service and leadership organization.  J-Teen Leadership was founded by Amanda Bilski and her mom, Tracey Bilski, a Wexner Heritage alumna from NY.  Tara can be reached at tara@marketingmattersltd.com

Can you imagine leaving LaGuardia Airport with 30 duffel bags packed to the brim and weighing over a ton?  Piled on top of each other, they could reach the second floor of the terminal.  On the surface, they were scruffy duffels that had trekked back and forth to summer camp a few too many times, but inside, they carried precious cargo — “gifts for the Jewish community” – we are not allowed to say donations – such as vitamins, medicines, clothing, and toothpaste!  When we returned to the U.S., the duffels were empty but our hearts and minds were full. 

32 of us-16 teens from J-Teen Leadership accompanied by 16 adults-traveled to Cuba on a humanitarian mission this past Memorial Day.  I felt incredibly blessed to have taken the journey with my 16 year-old son, one of the trip’s Co-Chairs.

Wexner Heritage New York / Westchester Alumni and their teens attending the J-Teen Leadership Tikkun Olam Breakfast. 

While most of the 15,000 Jews living in Cuba before 1959 fled at the time of the Communist Revolution, today nearly 1,500 remain with approximately 1,000 living in Havana.  The way they live is remarkable:  poverty-stricken families live in magnificent buildings which harken back to pre-revolution glory; yet damaged by the revolution and left in disarray, many lack plumbing.  Everything is rationed.  Few people own cars, and most of them date back to the 1950’s.  Imagine: no Starbucks, no Abercrombie, no Barnes and Noble, no Ipods, no Ipads.  Not much of anything.  Newly married couples don’t have access to housing, and right now, there is even a shortage of toothpaste!

Remarkably, there is no anti-Semitism.  All Cubans live this way.  In fact, the Jews of Cuba undoubtedly have a “better life” than other Cubans because they have the Jewish community.  The Jewish community provides Friday night chicken dinners, computer access, a gym, basic over-the-counter drugs, and most importantly, an overall sense of support.  At the Patronato, the weekly religious school boasts over 100 students.

During our visit, the J-Teen Leadership kids planned and orchestrated a fun-filled, American-style carnival for the younger kids in the Patronato religious school.  The initially reluctant Cuban children quickly absorbed the “rules” of the carnival and rejoiced over winning small stuffed animals and silly bands – simple “things” that are foreign to their daily lives.

Importantly, while the Cuban children got silly bands, the J-Teen Leadership kids got silly.  They were giddy realizing the tremendous impact of their actions.  Their hard work preparing and coordinating paid off in spades.  What really resonated for the J-Teen kids was the realization that while their lives are so different from the Cubans’, they have so much in common through their Judaism.  During Shabbat services, the sense of Jewish community was powerful as two dads from our group received aliyahs. 

As the American teens sorted the ton of supplies we brought, they vocalized the fact that we have so much while the Cuban Jews have so little.  The J-Teen kids learned other important life lessons.  For example, a key goal was to ensure equitable distribution of humanitarian gifts amongst the three synagogues that we visited: Adath Israel, El Patronato, and Centro Hebreo Safardi.  The teens were mature and gracious, concerned about protecting the pride of the recipients by distributing the supplies thoughtfully. 

The Cuban Jews were warm and appreciative, impressing us with their positive attitudes and their dedication to preserving their Judaism.  Yet, we quickly identified the dilemma they face within a Jewish community whose future is uncertain.  With Aliyah to Israel officially permitted by the Cuban government, the younger generation gravitates to emigrating while recognizing they will reduce the size of the Jewish community.  Amongst our Shabbat experiences was dinner with 18 people who were making Aliyah to Israel the next day. 

On the trip home, we reflected on the experiences we had on this teen-led community service mission.  I quickly realized how meaningful this trip was for me personally.  My perspective of what constitutes enough has shifted.  Each morning and evening when I brush my teeth, I am reminded of the toothpaste shortage and then I walk by my son’s room and we share that memory.  In so doing, we share much more–an appreciation for our lives as Americans in the 21st century and our shared responsibility of Tikkun Olam as Jews.  What a gift this mission was!

With the relaxation of U.S. government restrictions in January, change in Cuba is bound to occur.  Before this happens, experience Cuba yourselves-and take your children.  You will certainly get more than you give.