published in The Atlanta Jewish Times, May 3, 2002
Rebuilding a Community:
Atlantans to help bring relief to Cuba's Jews
DORI KLEBER: Special to the Jewish Times
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
the supplies on her second trip to Cuba in June 2001; American
embargoes prohibit shipping anything to Cuba, so supplies must
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
about relief efforts for Cuban Jewry, contact Miriam Saul at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-255-6652, or MJCCA International Community
Builders, (770) 395-2540.