This past the week Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba. Most of us never know what goes on behind closed doors, but by all public accounts, his visit was a profound disappointment to the Jewish community.
Before the Pope's visit, the Jewish community petitioned him to raise as a humanitarian concern the plight of Alan Gross. Alan Gross is an active member of the Maryland Jewish community who was prosecuted in Cuba in 2011 after being accused of crimes against the Cuban government for bringing computer equipment to the Cuban Jewish community and helping them connect to the internet.
He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba. Many people around the world view his conviction and sentence as a grave injustice. It was not only the Jewish community that asked the Pope to raise the plight of Alan Gross. The State Department also appealed to the Pope to speak out on behalf Gross.
But in published reports about the Pope's personal meeting with Fidel Castro it seems he had more important things to discuss. According to Reuters, they discussed "the difficult world situation and the problems of mankind from a religious, scientific and cultural point of view. Fidel Castro questioned Benedict about changes in church liturgy and asked the pope to send him a book to help him reflect."
Well, if I were in that conversation with the Pope and Castro, I would have immediately asked Castro to reflect upon the fact that it is the Jewish holiday of Passover this week. The holiday of Passover celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, and this year, Gross is being denied his freedom and thus an ability to fully celebrate the holiday.
I have personally tried through direct channels and indirect channels to visit with Gross in order to offer him moral strength and religious support. But the Cuban government has rebuffed my attempts. I have also taken my turn as part of a rotating series of synagogues and rabbis that hold vigils for Gross outside the Cuban Special Interests Section, raising a voice on behalf of Gross. I would have asked Castro to reflect on the fact that he was once a young revolutionary campaigning for freedom and he is now an old dictator imprisoning a man convicted of the crime of spreading the internet.
I have a warm place in my heart for Cuba because it saved my father's life. My father ran away from the Nazis during World War II, and the only country that welcomed him in was Cuba.
It was partly for this reason that I went on a religious mission of spiritual outreach to the synagogues of Cuba in the summer of 2006.
The Cuba that I saw was a far different place than the welcoming country that saved my father.
I saw a Cuba where nothing was as it seems. Everything was opaque; a police state with multiple police officers on every block watching everything you do. Political billboards were everywhere. There was a picture of Bush with Hitler's moustache; another picture which said "Bush: The Evil Assassin."
I remembered singing and dancing in Havana's three synagogues. There was so much joy and fellowship in the room as we connected with our brothers and sisters through prayers and Torah.
And yet, there was the dark side. There were people who told us privately that so-and-so is an informant; or please don't help us in public as any help you give us will be confiscated. Who knew who could be trusted?
I remembered meeting Jose Levy, the man who is the head of the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana. The Sephardic Synagogue is the smallest Synagogue in Cuba. Maybe its smallness has to do with the fact that Jose is persona non grata with the regime. He was a Captain in the Navy in 1980 when he applied for an exit visa. Not only was his visa rejected but he lost his job and for a long time was unable to work.
I saw a Cuba where people were seeking freedom from Castro's prison.
For this reason when I passed Castro's office one day and saw a very large statue of Jose Marti, who is beloved in Cuba as one of their liberators, I walked in front of the soldier who was standing guard next to the statue and blasted a shofar while holding a piece of matzah, both symbols of freedom in the Jewish tradition. I declared, "Dror ba-aretz, let there be freedom in the land. Let there be freedom so that people can voice opposition without going to jail. Let there be freedom so people can get more than six pounds of rice and six pounds of sugar a month. Let there be freedom so that people can make more than $20 a month. Let there be freedom so people can purchase their own home."
Let there be freedom so that local Cubans can have permission to surf the net without facing a prison sentence of 15 years.
It is my hope and prayer that the Pope asked Castro to reflect on this lack of freedom in his land. But I fear that the two of them had more important things to discuss.