Ten Cuban Jews found themselves standing in awe at Judaism's holiest site on Thursday, after a year of tough negotiations to bring the first group of Cuban Jews to Israel.
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Israel and Cuba have had no diplomatic ties since Cuba severed relations following the 1973 Mideast war. The Cuban government was reluctant to give the Jews permission to make the trip, fearing they would not return.
Taking in the site where the biblical Jewish Temples stood, by coincidence on the day when Jews mourn their destruction, Yohandi Crespo, 25, said, "This is just wonderful, very emotional." Crespo came from the town of Cameguey, which has a small community of 80 Jews.
The 10-day educational visit was organized by the "Taglit-birthright israel" program, an Israeli government-backed plan that sponsors trips to Israel for Jewish youth. It is the first such group to visit, though some Cuban Jews have come to Israel on their own.
Organizers said that it took more than a year of work to persuade the Cuban government to allow the group to participate in the project that each year brings about 15,000 young Jewish adults from around the world to Israel.
Originally just eight young Jews were due to come, but Cuban authorities insisted that two of the leaders of the Jewish community accompany them to ensure that all returned, Harriet Gimpel of Taglit-birthright israel said.
David Tacher, 52, from Santa Clara, who was appointed to accompany the group, said if all return home, it would ensure that future visits would be allowed.
"We just had to explain to the government why it was important for us as Jews to come to Israel," said William Miller, 27, a Jewish community leader from Havana. "They understood our reasons," Miller said, adding that relations between the Jewish community and the government of Fidel Castro were "very good."
The 10 had to fly to Israel via Canada, and the Canadian Jewish community also partly funded the journey.
For the group, many of whom had never been out of Cuba before, the trip to Israel was an emotional religious experience.
"I feel like I am walking in the Bible," said Miller. "You read about all these places and now we are here," he said, pointing at the Western Wall, part of Judaism's holiest site.
"I want to see the customs, the history, the people," said Victoria Delgado Farzin, 23, a telecommunications worker from Santiago de Cuba. "These are the things that unite all the Jewish people in the world," she said.
Delgado Farzin said that she was also here as an emissary of the rest of her community. "I am the eyes of everyone at home, I have to tell them everything I have seen," she said.
Miller said the trip would play an important part in reviving the Jewish community in Cuba that has dwindled from 15,000 before Castro's 1959 revolution to about 1,200 today.