How a Trip to Cuba Changed My Perspective

I just returned from a congregational mission trip to Cuba yesterday. It is quite possibly one of the most interesting and eye-opening journeys I have ever taken. Less than 24 hours after my return I’m still absorbing all of the experiences and only just beginning to sort in my mind what these experiences meant and what I learned from them. Cuba is a country of complexity and contradictions. It is some of what you have heard or imagined it to be, while also being entirely different from much of what you have heard or imagined. It is a place where the people are far less free in many ways and yet more free in other ways than we are in the USA.

Ours was a mission trip and so we visited three Jewish communities and a residence for pregnant women, bringing both goods and cash to help them do their work. The more substantial communities are in Havana, but we also visited with a representative of the 18-strong Jewish community of Cienfuegos. In addition, we learned a great deal about Cuban education, health care, international relations, economics, political history, and more, from our wonderful guide Manuel.

As some of the members of my community began to reflect on their experiences on the last evening of the trip, I was most struck by what one said to me: ‘As much as this trip has changed my perspective on Cuba, that was something that I expected to happen. But I didn’t realize how much it would change my perspective on the USA.’

We get comfortable with our particular perspectives and the lenses through which we look upon the world and upon others. It can be hard to shift that perspective, particularly if we only ever read the same sources for news, only have meaningful conversations with the same friends and people who think just like us. I think that is why an integral part of Jewish wisdom has always been not just what you study but how you study it; traditionally Torah and Talmud were to be studied always in havruta – with a partner. Two people – at least two perspectives. And it is why the Talmud includes the minority opinions on matters being debated and discussed and not only the majority point of view.

Multiple perspectives don’t always mean multiple truths. While much in the world is subjective, or at least complex enough that there can be more than one reasonable way of analyzing the picture before us, not all perspectives are equal to others. I had the opportunity to watch the movie, “Denial” (about the trial brought by Holocaust denier David Irving against Professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel) on the flight back from Miami to Boston. As Professor Lipstadt reminds us, “You can be entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.”

Nevertheless, it is an eye-opening experience to learn about the Revolution in Cuba, or the Bay of Pigs, through a Cuban lens. Having a guide who so generously and honestly opened up about the strengths and the flaws of the Cuban system — the problems and the opportunities — it caused us to reflect differently upon the strengths and the flaws of the country we live in. For illustration, one of those moments was with regard to health care. While Cuba struggles with shortages of some essentials and a centralized universal healthcare system means that they get to decide what gets provided and what doesn’t, this is what they do with regard to childbirth. Every woman is required to give birth in a hospital. Those who live in rural areas far from a hospital or those with any complications that require extra attention during the latter stages of pregnancy are housed in a pregnancy center near a hospital for the last 30 days of pregnancy where they are seen by nurses, helped to prepare for parenting, and more. After childbirth they are seen very regularly for the first few months and then monthly until the child is 1 years old. Rates of infant mortality are extremely low. Caesarian births are used only when absolutely necessary. At the same time, abortion is legal in Cuba and, while a woman wanting an abortion must be counseled first, it is freely available as part of the health care system.

While there are certainly things to critique about health care in Cuba, we were quite inspired by the dedication and care of the medical staff we met and the systems that are in place (by the way, a woman has up to one year of maternity leave with a guarantee to have her job back at the end of that year; pregnant women are entitled to 18 weeks fully-paid leave – six weeks before birth and 12 after -, plus an additional 40 weeks at 60 percent pay.) At a time when we are looking at a great deal of uncertainty around health care provisions in the USA, with much of the good of the Affordable Care Act almost certain to be undone by the next administration without a clear picture of what will replace it, this is just one of the moments of our trip that made many of us reconsider the frames and perspectives that we usually bring to understanding and evaluating the world around us and the unfolding of current affairs.

I will be processing all that I saw and learned in Cuba for quite some time. If you go, I highly recommend going on an organized tour, or at least making sure you arrange for an official tour guide for part of your time there. It simply isn’t possible to truly understand what you see there by yourselves. It is a land of complexities and contradictions, just as the place we call home is. A visit to such a different place helped to remind me of that, and the need to examine our world with the humility that comes with recognizing that there is often more than one way to understand what lies before us.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, My Jewish Learning

January 18, 2017

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