A group of Jewish Mainers is scheduled to visit Cuba this week, eager to get a rare look inside the long-isolated island country and make personal connections with its small but resilient Jewish population.

The Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine has organized the weeklong Jewish Mission to Cuba, which includes visits to Jewish sites and other cultural highlights of Havana and beyond. The 17 travelers are expected to arrive in Cuba around noon Monday, carrying with them medical and library supplies donated by various organizations and individuals in Maine.

The trip was planned before President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that they would restore full diplomatic relations. It has taken on new meaning and excitement as the two countries renew economic, social and political ties abandoned decades ago, including plans to open a U.S. Embassy in Havana this year.

“There’s definitely a sense that everything’s changing and it’s time to go before McDonald’s moves in,” said Fae Silverman, JCA program coordinator. “We had some late calls from people wanting to join our group, but it wasn’t possible because hotels are full. So, it’s a hot ticket right now.”

It’s the first trip organized by the JCA through the Jewish Cuba Connection, a California-based group founded in 2000 to support and empower Jewish communities in Cuba through fellowship and action.

Although there are fewer than 1,500 Jews living in Cuba today, as many as 24,000 lived there in the 1920s, according to various sources. Through the centuries, Jews arrived in Cuba in waves, escaping persecution in Spain during the Inquisition, in Turkey after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and in Europe before and during the Nazi reign. Blocked by U.S. immigration quotas, some Jews chose Cuba for its proximity to America, then decided to stay put.

Most Jews fled Cuba after the Communist revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959. Though their population has dwindled, Jews remain curiously revered in Cuba, in part because some members of their community were active in the founding of the Communist Party and the revolution. Unlike other Cubans, Jews have access to meat each week so they can celebrate the Sabbath properly, and many Jewish graves have been robbed of their bones, possibly for use in Afro-Cuban religious rituals.

The Jewish Mission to Cuba is poised to foster ties between the relatively small number of Jews in Maine – 13,890 of the state’s 1.3 million residents – and the even smaller number of Jews among Cuba’s 11.2 million people. There are about 6 million Jews in the United States.

Emily Chaleff, former executive director of the JCA, felt a powerful connection when she made a similar trip to Cuba in 2013.

“It was an incredible learning experience to witness a Jewish community maintaining its faith despite being a significant minority in a much larger community,” Chaleff said. “It really binds an individual’s identity when they’re able to connect with similar people elsewhere.”

When Chaleff was there, the level of poverty among most Cubans was readily apparent, with crumbling buildings everywhere and people eager to receive donations of hotel soap.

“It’ll be fascinating to see what the experience is like for this group,” Chaleff said. “Information is so controlled by the state, I wonder how much people know about the shift in diplomatic relations and how much things have really changed. I imagine day-to-day life has changed very little for most people there.”

The group’s itinerary includes various cultural and historic sites in new and old Havana, including famous plazas, churches and Adath Israel, the only Orthodox Jewish synagogue remaining in Cuba. The Mainers will also venture outside the city to Santa Clara, where they will have lunch with Jewish community members and visit a Jewish cemetery that contains a Holocaust memorial.

They’ll also visit the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage City that has a sister-city relationship with Brunswick. The group includes Sherrie Bergman and Donald Quaid of Brunswick, who are looking forward to promoting the sister-city connection and learning more about Cuba in general.

“American Jews are always interested in how Jewish communities have evolved and survived in other places,” said Bergman, a retired librarian. “I’m especially pleased that there is a humanitarian aspect to this trip.”

The group plans to deliver children’s books, notebooks, pencils, pencil sharpeners and other books to the public library in Trinidad. Members also plan to deliver medical and health care supplies donated by Beacon Eye Care in Biddeford, Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, Brunswick Dental Health Associates, and Phyllis and Dan Dunitz of Saco.

Dr. Robert Sax will be traveling with his daughter, Alexandra Sax, a JCA staff member. He recently returned from a Jewish heritage cruise on the Danube River, which included visits to the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic and to the courtroom in Nuremberg, Germany, where Nazis were tried for war crimes.

A retired surgeon, Sax is eager to learn about Cuba’s political, economic and social evolution.

“I’ve always been concerned with how people survive and thrive in the most difficult situations,” Sax said. “I’m fascinated by the resilience of the Jewish community and Cuban culture in general in a country stifled by communism.”

Correction: This story was updated at 12:23 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10 to clarify why Jewish graves may have been robbed.

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