As published in The Atlanta Jewish Times, May 3, 2002

Rebuilding a Community:
Atlantans to help bring relief to Cuba's Jews

Byline: DORI KLEBER: Special to the Jewish Times

Ask Miriam Saul to talk about Cuba and she leans forward in her seat, speaking with excitement as she tries to impart every detail of the island country's beauty, the warmth of its people and the struggles of its Jewish community.

Saul will travel to Cuba in June -- her fourth trip there in less than two years -- as part of the International Community Builders program of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA). About 20 Jewish Atlantans will travel with Saul, bringing relief supplies for Cuba's Jewish community of some 1,500 people.

The group will follow in the footsteps of former president Jimmy Carter, scheduled to visit Cuba in mid-May. Carter's trip, approved by the Bush administration, would be the first by a U.S. president or former president since the 1959 revolution when Fidel Castro took power.

For Saul, aiding Cuban Jewry is personal. She was born in Cuba and grew up in the small town of Matanzas. In 1961, Saul's parents, Zhenia and Ben Greszes, sent Saul, then 11, and her older sister, Lydia, to Atlanta to live with relatives. When Saul left, she didn't expect to see her parents again. "We thought we were saying goodbye forever," she said. The Greszes eventually reunited with their children in Atlanta and still live here. Saul soaked up American culture and learned to fit in, but, she said, "I always felt as if something was missing in me."

In 2000, as she approached her 50th birthday, Saul decided to seek government permission to visit Cuba. What began that December as a personal journey became a fierce determination to help Cuba's small Jewish community. Saul said she was moved by Cuban Jews' dedication to nourishing their heritage despite the nation's overwhelming poverty, the limited opportunities for Jewish education and the restrictions of a Communist society that frowns on organized religion.

No rabbi serves in Cuba. A retired physician, Jose Miller, heads Havana's Jewish community. The Joint Distribution Committee, a United Jewish Communities relief organization, assigns a Jewish couple to live in Havana and visit Cuba's smaller Jewish communities to help organize religious observances. Those communities are using Torahs and other religious artifacts that were stored in Havana since the 1960s and are now making their way back to their original communities.

"It's like the purest kind of Judaism, seeing how they are practicing," Saul said. "It is a miracle that out of nothing, they have made this community flourish."

After her first trip, Saul began to look for ways to help Cuba's Jews and soon became a one-woman clearinghouse for medicines, powdered milk and Judaica. At Greenfield Hebrew Academy, where she teaches kindergarten, Saul asked students to give her their used school supplies at the end of the 2001 school year, knowing what were worn-out crayons to these students would be treasures in Cuba. "It is a place where so little can go so far," she said.

Saul carried the supplies on her second trip to Cuba in June 2001; American embargoes prohibit shipping anything to Cuba, so supplies must be hand-carried.

Saul quickly realized she needed to find a support system if she was to make a significant impact, so she became involved with several American organizations that help Cuban Jewry. Then, she learned about MJCCA's International Community Builders program, a vision of the center's volunteer/community services coordinator, Shaindle Schmuckler.

"I wanted to affect another community with all the wealth we have here," said Schmuckler, who said she is referring to resources as well as money. During this school year, Saul has involved Hebrew Academy second-graders with Cuban Jewry as a tzedaka project. They have collected money, clothing and medicine and have learned about the island. Saul delivered the first batch of the students' donations in December, but she said the students continuously ask her what they can do next for Cuba's Jews.

A December 2001 trip had been planned as the inaugural International Community Builders mission to Cuba, but it was postponed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Saul went anyway -- she refused to miss the bar mitzvah of David Farrin, only the fourth bar mitzvah since 1960 in Santiago de Cuba.

Saul said she marvels at the drive the boy must have had to study, and the way the community, which has no rabbi, found a way to teach him. "They just re-gained the building that used to be the city's synagogue," she said.

The MJCCA mission to Cuba has been rescheduled for June, but Saul said she plans to go a week early with her husband, Daniel, and their children, Jamie, 20, and 17-year-old twins Courtney and Marshall to show her family where she grew up.

Saul said her thoughts are with her Cuban peers daily and her garage is a storehouse of donated toiletries, baby food and clothing that she will take on her next trip. On previous trips, she has taken menorahs, mezzuzot, challah covers and tzedaka boxes. The are no restrictions on what can be brought; travelers are limited only by a per-pound fee. Saul said she believes she was destined to help Cuba's Jews.

"I believe in things beshert [fated]," she wrote about her most recent visit. "Relatives and friends helped my parents and my family make a good life in the U.S. Now I can help to lessen the hardships of my new friends."

For information about relief efforts for Cuban Jewry, contact Miriam Saul at or 404-255-6652, or MJCCA International Community Builders, (770) 395-2540.