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The First-Ever Kosher Cuba Tour - January 2018
Produced by Vamos International. Hosted by Club Kosher
Jewish groups have gone on missions to Cuba for years, however never before was there officially an organized "Kosher" group tour with freshly-prepared
meals to the "forbidden" island until this year. Club Kosher, which has presented Passover and Winter Vacations for nearly two decades, combined forces
with Vamos International, a Jewish-owned travel company, to bring a group of observant U.S. travelers to Havana and surrounding regions, January 14-19.
Half the group departed from Miami with the travel company Vamos International, and landed in Havana where they were welcomed with their first kosher lunch. The other half of the group flew directly from New York with Club Kosher's Charles Rosenay, and were greeted with a kosher boxed lunch. Both group were transported by luxury coach and began an on-board orientation plus initial sightseeing at Revolution Square.
All the participants met for Mincha and Maariv, where they were joined by the last of the travelers, coming from Arizona. Religious services
were arranged and overseen by Rabbi Dr. Ari Korenblit, a veteran of many previous Club Kosher destinations. He brought along a Torah. After prayers, the
entire group was ready for their first sit-down dinner at an exclusive restaurant, kashered in advance of their arrival.
There was a washing station and a bar area, with rows of table for the guests. The program began with introductions from all the hosts, one of whom proudly called himself "Jewban" (Jewish Cuban). Dinner was highlighted by a spirited eight piece performance group who played lively music and danced flamenco-style. The meal started with hot loaves of Italian bread, accompanied by crunchy poppers and fried plantains as appetizers followed by a health salad. The main dish was a sight to behold: a breathtaking fish and egg Paella served from a giant wok. Dessert was a sweetened fruit rind. The performers and staff seemed to enjoy the birchat hamaazon which concluded what was a delicious and abundant festive welcome dinner.
Back at the hotel, the Miramar Memories Habana resort, there was a full band in the lobby bar for more dancing and entertainment for those who weren't too tired from their journey and who weren't concerned with tznius issues (as the band was an all-girl group).
The first full day began with an early morning Minyan, followed by a lavish patio breakfast with hot breads, cheese platters, lox, pancakes, a medley of fruits, variety of dry cereals, hot options and an omelet station.
Sightseeing started aboard a luxury coach with the tour-guide Carlos, who was an expert in history, politics and had the perfect personality and sense of humor for the group. He started with Christopher Columbus's discovery of Cuba in 1492 and continued from there. The first visit of the day was to the Orthodox Synagogue, where the Rabbi gave a talk and history of Jews in Cuba.
He was proud to announce that there was absolutely zero anti-Semitism in Cuba. After the Shul, the group visited a typical Bodega which provided certain foods and goods to the community, followed by such locations as the Old Square Vieja, Cathedral Square and a number of historic forts and relics of the wall that surrounded Havana.
The group returned to the restaurant for a Tuna Suffle lunch before continuing sight-seeing at the Afro-Cuban Arts district and the John Lennon Peace Park. All the members of the group took photos with the Lennon statue, some wondering why there wasn't a Lenin statue.
Mincha and Maariv were back at the restaurant, where the chefs had prepared a themed Italian night. Designer dishes included Brochetta, a large portion of Pasta, Rizzoto and Eggplant. It was topped off with a birthday cake.
That evening the group experienced Cuban entertainment at its best, at the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club.
The next day started with religious services and another full breakfast. There were fresh juices along with coffee, tea and spring water, and some other items were added such as peanut butter, jellies and jam, plus more egg options and waffles. The first stop was at Cuba's Jewish cemetery. The visitors explored the grounds, examining many of the plots and headstones. Rabbi Korenblit conducted an impromptu service at the Monument for the Jewish War Veterans. Upon discovering that there were so many graves without markers or up-keep, many of the group members collected tzedakah earmarked for the cemetery restoration.
Ernest Hemingway plays a big part of Cuba's tourism, and the group visited his famed Havana home. Lunch at the restaurant included a butternut squash soup, red snapper platter and the traditional rice & beans and plantain chips.
One of the highlights of the week - and a must for any trip to Havana - was provided by a fleet of colorful antique cars. Four travelers per car were chauffeured on a two-hour cruise throughout Old Havana. Everyone took endless photos and some wished they could take home the classic cars with them!
The coach gathered all the guests to spend some quality time at the second of three Shuls in the area, Templo Beth Shalom Gran Synagogue. There was a welcome presentation including another history of the Jewish Cuban people -- from 15,000-20,000 Jews in the late fifties to 1,500 at the most nowadays.
Whereas the Orthodox Shul focuses on the needs of the older community, this Conservative temple focuses on youth and distribution of food, goods and medicines. They have a Sunday school of 200 kids, recently renamed Albert Einstein, including bar mitzvah classes. This compliments the regular school system. There are over 50 regular Shul participants and over 200 in Holidays. The group davened in the Shul, explored the sanctuary, looked at the artifacts and photos (including candids of Steven Spielberg and President Obama at the congregation), had dinner, and kvelled while Jewish Cuban teenagers from a youth group gave an Israeli dance performance that they rehearsed and prepared especially for the group's visit . After Rabbi Ari thanked everyone there, the community leaders in turn thanked the visitors, and at that point the cemetery donation was presented.
After leaving what was clearly the most popular and well-known synagogue in Havana, the coach whisked the group out for a Vegas-style extravagance at the world-class Tropicana nightclub. A combination of great singers, showgirls with high head-dresses, choreography, glitzy lighting and production, plus a bottle of rum at every table made for an unforgettable evening.
Rosh Chodesh Minyan at the hotel found the group joined by Israeli friends who were staying at the same hotel. They were invited to join the group for breakfast. The next highlight for the travelers came in the form of a relaxing coach ride out of the city and through the countryside into Pinar del Rio to visit a working cigar factory. The tour-guide Carlos gave a comprehensive lesson on cigars on the way. Along with the factory, the group visited a cigar mega-store which had some higher-end brands not available elsewhere. The journey concluded with a visit to a cigar plantation with seemingly infinite fields of tobacco plants. The cigar "farmers" welcomed the group with complete access, and opened up a seated area where everyone was able to enjoy their to-go lunches, alongside roaming chickens and peacocks.
On the scenic return trip back though the country, the coach passed the mountain region and everyone was entertained by the old-school jokes by tour-member Murray and learned about the famous Cuban song "Guantanamera." The famed folk anthem is by far the best known Cuban song and is the nation's most patriotic ode, often containing the lyrics Cuban poet Jose Marti.
What travel adventure is complete without a shopping spree? Next on the itinerary was a full hour of tchochke shopping at the mile-long marketplace. There are full-sized trains on the outside for photo ops, and endless shops inside. There was Cuban art, pottery, t-shirts, magnets, license plates, replicas of the antique cars, flags, musical instruments, jewelry, and every imaginable souvenir. The group was pleasantly surprised to see some of the kiosks with Hebrew words welcoming customers, presumably for Israeli visitors. A few members of the group did even more cigar store shopping there, while others stocked up on rum.
After some time back at the hotel to freshen up after what was already a full day, the coach took everyone to the third of the three Havana Jewish places of worship, the Sephardic Synagogue. It turns out that there was a Sephardic community that arrived first in Cuba, which came with Christopher Columbus, but many Sephardis came to settle in Cuba and other Latin American countries from Turkey. It was easy for them to assimilate. Sadly, 90% community left in 1959. Of the four floors, the largest capacity was in the Shul itself - 726 people could fit. Another area housed a highly-acclaimed Holocaust memorial.
There was an active Senior center, but no Rabbi. Membership consisted of 80 families totaling over 200 people. Over Shabbat, an average of 40 people would come for Friday night services and about 30 Saturday mornings.
Similar to the night prior, dinner was served in the social hall. On the menu was a butternut squash soup, cole slaw salad, grilled fish with yellow rice, and a fresh fruit medley for dessert.
Following supper and an enjoyable and educational evening at the Sephardic Synagogue, the group was invited for coffee in the house of a Jewish Cuban dignitary. It was very interesting to see the lifestyle and home of a more affluent Jewish Cuban resident
The next day was a very sunny but cooler morning. Again some Israeli guests at the hotel joined the minyan and were invited to what was probably their only kosher breakfast in Cuba.
The coach whisked the group on a cultural and informative excursion which began in Fusterland, an artist's paradise where literally the entire town is decorated in mosaic tiles - even the paths and rooftops. You have to see it to believe it. After that, the guide had the coach stop at an area that had been known as the Cuban "Coney Island" which even once featured a roller coaster called "Russian Mountain." It was near a deserted circus where all the tents are still in place. Nearby was "Point Zero" which was Fidel Castro's home.
Next up was a stop at a Cuban Shuk! It was a neighborhood farmers market where locals shopped for fruits, vegetables and even spices designed for cures of insomnia and other ailments. The sightseeing continued at the Hotel Nacional (the National Hotel), which was the location of the 1946 "Havana Conference," a mafia summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, later dramatized in the film, "Godfather Part ll." Not far was the Hotel Riviera, built by the notorious Jewish mobster Lansky. Also on the route was the former Hilton hotel, the Exposition Center, movie theaters and pretty much most of downtown Havana.
A return to the restaurant for lunch was also time to rest from the brisk pace. On the menu was lentil soup, gourmet tuna pizza (and regular NY-style cheese pizza for the less adventurous), sweet potatoes, salad and a chilled shredded coconut dessert which some raved about.
After lunch the group spent quality time at the Museum of Fine Art, with a vast exhibit of Picasso-esque paintings by Cuban artist (Wilfredo) Lam before a visit to the cannons at Fort de San Carlos de la Cabana and a ride past Morro Castle. On the final day of sightseeing, the group pretty much checked off the list of all the must-sees that was on the original itinerary plus other sites that were added as time fit.
The group returned to the hotel to change and freshen up for the farewell dinner at the restaurant. Another full course meal was embellished by a live Cuban band which was brought in to perform background music for the occasion. Once back in their rooms, all the guests packed and turned in early.
After morning services and breakfast, the travelers boarded the coach for their transfer to the airport. It was unanimous that the historic journey to "Forbidden" Cuba was successful on so many levels: learning about Cuban culture, visiting all the Havana synagogues while interacting with the Jewish community, enjoying the comprehensive sightseeing and loving the delicious and plentiful freshly-prepared Kosher meals throughout the journey.
The next Kosher Cuba vacation is planned for November, but organized trips can be customized any time of year. Kosher and observant individuals, groups or synagogues interested in traveling to Cuba may contact Club Kosher at (203) 795-4737 or by email at KosherCuba@gmail.com. Website is www.ClubKosher.com