Israeli High-techies Set Their Lenses on Cuba’s Jews

Exhibit opening at Beth Hatefutsoth is latest in amateur photographers’ project in Diaspora communities.

A little more than a year ago, a group of eight Israeli amateur photographers set out on a journey to Cuba. Their mission was not only to capture on camera the complexity of Jewish life in this last outpost of Soviet-style communism, but also to lend a helping hand.

A special exhibition of their photographs titled “An Island within an Island – A Look at the Jews of Cuba” opens on Thursday at Tel Aviv’s Beth Hatefutsoth: The Museum of the Jewish People. Once the exhibition closes, the photographs will be sold and the proceeds sent back to the Jewish community of Cuba.

Photography is more than just a hobby for these amateurs, says group member Amir Halevy. “It comes from a deep sense of social responsibility and a desire to create a new sort of philanthropy,” he explains. “It used to be that Jews around the world felt a sense of responsibility toward Israel. Here we have a reverse situation with Israelis acting out of their sense of responsibility toward Jews living under difficult conditions around the world.”

The name of their group is Jdocu, and their slogan is “repairing the world frame by frame.” Their first trip, taken in the summer of 2011, was to the Jewish community of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. The photos from that trip were also exhibited at Beth Hatefutsoth, and the $30,000 raised through their eventual sale was sent back to the Jewish community there.

Jdocu was set up by Benny Levin, co-founder and former CEO of Israeli software provider NICE Systems. The group includes other prominent names like Yossi Beinart, CEO of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange; Eliezer Yaari, a former television journalist and past director of the New Israel Fund; Shai Beilis, CEO and chairman of Formula Ventures; and Carmel Vernia, a high-tech executive who also served as Israel’s chief scientist. Halevy, who took a few hours off on a recent morning to help set up the exhibit, works as a senior partner at the Tel Aviv law firm of Gross, Kleinhendler, Hodak, Halevy, Greenberg & Co.

Jdocu’s goal, says Halevy, is to target a different Jewish community every year, and its members already have a commitment from Beth Hatefutsoth to host their photographic documentation of each upcoming trip. A third partner in this effort is the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides logistic support and assistance.

Eli Atias, the exhibit curator, is a professional photojournalist and teacher, who accompanies the Jdocu members on their trips, sharing with them tricks of the trade along the way.

The trip to Cuba, he acknowledges, posed unique challenges. “Because it’s a communist country, it was difficult to get into people’s homes, so we had to meet them where they were, whether that be the synagogues or other public spaces. Ideally, when you’re documenting communities, it’s nice to get inside homes, but that wasn’t possible here.”

During their nine-day trip, the photographers visited Havana, where most of the Jewish community is based, as well as Santa Clara and Trinidad. The Jewish population of Cuba is estimated today at about 1,500 – down from a peak of 15,000 in the years preceding Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

The exhibit includes about 60 photographs in addition to a collection of portraits of Jewish families, some holding up their identity cards as proof of their ethnic roots. It also includes video footage of a bar mitzvah and a havdalah service marking the conclusion of Shabbat. “In my entire life, this was the first time I ever attended a havdalah service, and it was extremely moving,” says Halevy. 

Tali Idan