Maot Chitin 50th anniversary

April 15, 2011 Op-ed from the Toronto Star by Bernie M. Farber, former CEO of CJC and CJC Charities Committee, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee's "maot chitin" project. Between 1961 and 2011 the CJC Charities Committee annually shipped thousands of kilos of Kosher for Passover food to the Cuban Jewish community. The project is now continuing under the auspices of UIAFC Federations Canada.


El Patronato synagogue in Havana, Cuba 


It's that time of year again.

I feel that parched sensation in my throat that comes from eating too many celery sticks dipped in saltwater, downing hard-boiled eggs, and crunching on matzo - also known as unleavened bread, or the Jewish version of edible cardboard.

Passover is quickly approaching. It's one of my favourite Jewish holidays, and not just because we drink lots of wine, stuff ourselves silly at the traditional Seder meal and are encouraged to recline comfortably as we do so. It's because of what this holiday represents - a celebration of Jewish freedom and our escape from slavery.

Celebrating Passover has always been an important part of my family's life. Each year, as I sit down at the Seder table, I think about Jews around the globe coming together to share this important Jewish experience.

But for some, gathering to commemorate Passover is not that simple. And as the CEO of the Charities Committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress, I have had the privilege of helping one Jewish community that would not otherwise be able to have the Passover experience.

Most people don't know that Cuba is home to 540 Jewish families - 1,500 people, the majority of whom live in Havana. The community was established more than 100 years ago by 11 U.S. Jews who built the country's first synagogue.

It was a successful community of entrepreneurs and at its height boasted 15,000 people, served by five synagogues and six elementary schools. But when Fidel Castro came to power, most of the community fled, taking their livelihoods with them.

Those who remained had few options for continuing their Jewish life - especially after the 1961 U.S. embargo of the island cut off access to kosher products required to follow Jewish dietary laws, which become even more strict during Passover. That's when my predecessors at the Canadian Jewish Congress stepped in.

There is a centuries-old custom, known as Maot Chitim, whereby Jews gathered wheat to provide the poor with matzo and other items for the observance of Passover. In modern times, that tradition is expressed through the distribution of Passover food to those in need.

That's why, when the Joint Distribution Committee, an international Jewish aid agency, approached the Canadian Jewish community to help Cuba's Jews, Ben Kayfetz, the lead professional at the Canadian Jewish Congress at the time, immediately stepped up.

I remember how important it was to Ben to help every Jew in Cuba live a full Jewish life by finding a way to get them kosher-for-Passover food. He started a fundraising campaign through synagogues, and the proceeds were used to purchase the necessary food and wine.

In the early years, getting the shipment to Cuba was difficult, but through patient negotiation we reached an understanding with the Cuban authorities.

Each year, the shipment contains all the kosher-for-Passover basics when it lands in Havana, where local Jewish families can collect what they need. A portion of the shipment is forwarded to the smaller Jewish centres around the country. This year's shipment of nearly 11,000 kilograms will fill a 40-foot shipping container.

I have come to know the Cuban Jewish community well through this connection - so well, in fact, that four years ago, my family celebrated my son Max's bar mitzvah at the El Patronato synagogue in Havana. We went to the island with 50 of our friends and relatives in December 2006. We received such a warm reception from the synagogue's members that we forgot all about the snow and ice we left behind.

The community graciously hosted a festive luncheon after the bar mitzvah service. We all took part in Jewish songs and dances performed with a Latin flare. Community members showered us with thanks, and noted the meal was cooked using some of the leftover oil that had been sent the previous spring for Passover.

I will not soon forget Max's Cuban bar mitzvah. In a way, it was not just Max who celebrated a new chapter and vision for life but all of us who were with him in that Havana synagogue. Seeing the excitement and pride of that small Cuban Jewish community, their resilience under sometimes difficult circumstances and their sheer joy in being Jewish made us all better people.

As I consider our 50th anniversary of providing kosher-for-Passover food to our fellow Jews in Cuba, I am reminded of the wise Jewish sage, Hillel, who once proclaimed: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Bernie M. Farber

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