In Cuba for the first time on an educational mission a few months ago, businessman-philanthropist Steven Tisch told his guide he wanted to visit some of the Jewish sites in Havana’s small Jewish community.
Tisch ended up at Temple Beth Shalom, the de facto headquarters of Cuban Jewry, where he spent a few hours speaking with Adele Dworin, the community’s head. She told her visitor about Jewish Cuba’s history, culture and increasing viability in recent years.
At the end of their conversation, Dworin told Tisch she had a special request — the country’s Jewish community planned to send a delegation this year, for the first time, to the Maccabiah Games in Israel, July 17-30, and needed funds to pay for their uniforms.
He agreed on the spot, picking up the bill for the 55-member delegation.
“It was a perfect opportunity to combine my passion for sports and my passion for Jews,” says Tisch, who is a co-owner of the NFL New York Giants and active in UJA-Federation of New York.
While many Jews from the former Soviet Union and the former Iron Bloc countries in Eastern Europe began competing in the Maccabiah Games after Communism fell some two decades ago, Cuba — where Communism still reigns, money is scarce and ties with Israel have largely remained clandestine — has not sent a team before.
After accepting the Maccabiah invitation this year, the Cuban Jewish community of about 1,500 people turned for funding to the American Jews who often visit the island nation on humanitarian missions. Detroit’s Jewish federation, for example, donated soccer equipment for the Cuban team, a women’s delegation from Rhode Island raised $15,000 to defray expenses, and the team turned to the online GoGetFunding.com crowd-funding site to bring in additional funds.
Two other Maccabiah teams, from Bulgaria and Romania, which lacked sufficient funding to sponsor their athletes’ Maccabiah competition, received support from Maccabi USA.
“As we have done in the past, we will always be there for both the Maccabiah and the regional events at the highest level possible,” Maccabi USA’s president, Ron Carner, said in a statement.
Cuba will be represented in five sports over the next two weeks in the international competition: soccer, table tennis, softball, karate and archery. In addition, 13 young women will take part in a dance festival in Karmiel in northern Israel.
The Cuban government has allowed greater religious freedom in recent decades, and organizations like B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have an active presence there.
The Jewish community scouted its most talented athletes and arranged training for the Games. The team’s members range in age from 13 (karate) to 59 (softball).
Tisch says the uniforms of every member will bear the initials PRT on the shoulder, a tribute to his late father Preston Robert Tisch, also a philanthropist and Giants’ owner.
He says he plans to go to Israel for the last few days of the Maccabiah. And he plans to return to Cuba. “I am fascinated by the people, by the culture, by the history.”
See profiles of three area Maccabiah athletes, page 22. firstname.lastname@example.org