Mitzvah Corps Cuba
Issue Focus: Cultural Heritage
For five decades, the Caribbean island-nation of Cuba has lived in isolation, closed to all but a tiny minority of U.S. citizens. Now, change is in the air. Under the People-to-People general license granted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, authentic interaction with Cubans is possible.
Beginning in Santiago de Cuba and traveling west towards the bustling capital of Havana, Mitzvah Corps Cuba participants will traverse the island and witness history in the making as the long freeze in Cuba-United States relations begins to thaw. They'll explore what it means to be a global citizen, and engage in social justice without the traditional infrastructure we've come to expect when taking on traditional volunteer projects.
Through direct people-to-people interaction, the group will learn firsthand about the Cuban Revolution, contemporary music, film, Hemingway, the Bay of Pigs invasion, sustainable agriculture, Cuban sports and culture, the folk religion of Santeria, and more! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the life and culture of this fascinating, vibrant, and rapidly changing nation and its people.
In Partnership With: Putney Student Travel
Mitzvah Corps Cuba, run in partnership with Putney Student Travel, combines Putney's extensive experience and network in Cuba with Mitzvah Corps' deeply rooted Reform Jewish values and commitment to engaging participants in meaningful, relevant Jewish experiences.
The culture of volunteerism in Cuba is different than in most countries; there will be much discussion and exploration of the concept of social justice within Cuba. Opportunities to engage with community, through direct service or otherwise, may include:
- Having direct people-to-people interactions around the country
- Working on an organic farm
- Living in private homes and get to know Cuban families
- Interviewing vendors about Cuba's food ration system
- Meeting with representatives of the Cuban Institute of Friendship between Peoples (ICAP)
- Learning from artists, musicians, dancers, and community organizers
Additionally, each teen has the opportunity to engage in a personal project to better understand life in Cuba, with the option to explore topics such as Cuba's dual currencies, Cuban music and dance, gender in Cuba, equality and race in Cuba, communism vs. socialism, current US-Cuba relations, Cuba's small but growing private sector, and more.
Traverse the Island
Throughout the program, the group will travel across the country, exploring the diversity and beauty:
- Santiago de Cuba - become oriented with Cuba's history, geography, and culture in its original capital; live amongst the vibrant center of literature, art, and music; take part in a lively street festival.
- Baracoa - enjoy living in the quaint oceanside town; learn about the indigenous Taino history in the holdest Spanish settlement in Cuba, teach English to local children; explore the natural surroundings of beaches, waterfalls, and mountains.
- Havana - meet with friendly Cuban high school and university students; explore the colonial seat of La Habana Vieja, the crowded streets and funky folk art alleyways of Centro Habana, and the elegant mansions in the residential area of Vedado.
Vibrant Natural and Cultural Beauty
From the crystalline waters to original architecture, Cuba has a stunningly beautiful array of cities, mountains, and water. Throughout the trip, participants will enjoy, among so much more, the:
- Vibrant neighborhoods of Havana
- Pine-clad Sierra Maestra mountain range
- Melting pot of Haitian, African, and Spanish influences
- Quaint oceanside towns and colonial cities
- Rolling hills that make up organic farms
Below is our preliminary itinerary. We refine the schedule as we approach each summer to respond to the evolving needs, and take advantage of the most current opportunities, in the local communities. Shabbat will be observed in the local community on Friday evening and Saturday morning, and Havdallah is celebrated on Saturday evening.
Day 1 - Group Orientation in Miami
The program will commence in Miami. Everyone will spend a night at a hotel near the airport, where they'll begin building their community by getting to know one another, and framing the experience they're about to have. Introductory programs will include providing relevant background information about Cuba setting expectations for what daily life will look like during the trip, and giving participants the opportunity to ask questions.
Days 2-4 - Santiago de Cuba
The group will fly together from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, where they'll settle into their residences and begin with a comprehensive orientation on Cuba's history, geography, and culture. Santiago is located on the southeastern most reach of the island, framed by the shores of the brilliant blue Caribbean sea and the pine-clad Sierra Maestra mountain range. The original capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is home to some of the island's oldest palaces and museums. Santiago is also the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution; today, it is a vibrant center of literature, art, and music, with a population that is a melting pot of Haitian, African, and Spanish influences. Participants will take part in a lively street festival, visit a santero to learn about this Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition, tour a cigar factory and meet with workers, and learn to dance salsa in an open-air plaza. They'll also connect with a neighborhood watchdog group whose purpose is to uphold the principles of the Revolution at the barrio (local) level, and through interactions with Cubans, have a chance to learn or practice Spanish!
Days 5-7 - Baracoa
Next, the group will travel east to the quaint oceanside town of Baracoa, the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and the country's first capital, rich with indigenous Taino history. They'll connect with local schoolchildren to teach English and work in a day camp with arts, crafts, music, and games, and explore Baracoa's gorgeous natural surroundings including beaches, waterfalls, and mountains.
Days 8-10 - Organaponico Farm
Participants and staff will spend these days staying in casas particulares (private homes) close to a working organic farm. There, they'll work with Cubans who run the cooperative and learn firsthand about farming and food systems in Cuba.
Days 11-15 - Havana
Finally, the group will travel to the bustling capital city of Havana, where friendly Cuban high school and university students will be their guides through the city's vibrant neighborhoods. They'll visit the remarkably preserved colonial seat of Habana Vieja, the crowded streets and funky folk art alleyways of Centro Habana, and the elegant subdivided mansions in the thriving residential area of Vedado. The group will learn about the urban agricultural scene on another working organic farm just outside the city, visit Hemingway's home Finca Vigia, meet the founder of an organization dedicated to helping students with disabilities through dance, and talk to renowned musicologist Alberto Faya about his life and music in Cuba. Engage with the local Jewish community in Vedado, and take a day trip to Vinales for outdoor exploration in and around limestone mogotes (flat-topped hills), caves, and fields.
Day 16 - Return to the United States
The group will fly together back from Havana, Cuba, to Miami together.
Each Mitzvah Corps international program commences at a U.S. gateway airport. Participants are responsible for their transportation to the gateway city, where they will be greeted by their Mitzvah Corps staff. The entire group will travel together from the gateway airport to their international destination, and return together upon conclusion of the program.
Domestic Travel to Miami
Mitzvah Corps Cuba will commence at Miami International Airport.
Participants are responsible for their own transportation from their home to the airport. Travel parameters are provided upon registration; once confirmed, participants will submit their domestic travel plans to Mitzvah Corps.
The cost of domestic travel is not included in tuition, nor does Mitzvah Corps make arrangements for any domestic travel.
Domestic carriers have varying regulations regarding unaccompanied minors (read specific policies and fees of major domestic carriers Southwest, United, Delta, American, and JetBlue). Please refer to the protocol of the chosen airline, and notify Mitzvah Corps in advance of the program so that we can provide the contact information for the staff member who will greet the teen upon their arrival, and coordinate a smooth travel experience.
International Travel to Cuba
Participants and staff on Mitzvah Corps Cuba will depart together from Miami International Airport, and return to the same airport when the program concludes. During the program, the group will also fly from Cuba's east coast to Havana. All participants must travel with the group.
The cost of these round-trip airfares is estimated to total about $900 and is not included in the program tuition.
Mitzvah Corps handles booking and purchasing seats for each participant on the group flights. When the seats are ticketed in the spring and the cost is finalized, that charge will be added to your Mitzvah Corps bill, and you will be required to pay it in full by April 1st.
If you have access to points or miles that you'd prefer to use instead of dollars, and there is reward availability on the group flight, that method of booking may be available. Please contact us to discuss this option.
Obtaining a Tourist Visa
U.S. citizens require a tourist visa to enter Cuba. The visa is obtained through the airline at the time of international airfare purchase. The price of the visa is included in the cost of the international airfare (approximately $900 total).
Global Traveler's Insurance
Traveler's insurance is included in Mitzvah Corps tuition; policy details are available upon request.
Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions about international travel!
What are the housing accommodations like?
Group accommodations are carefully selected to emphasize convenience, a positive group environment, and wholesome interaction with local people and fellow travelers. In general, living accommodations in Cuba are simple compared to the U.S. or elsewhere. In Havana, the group will stay at a hotel comprised of mostly double and triple rooms, each air-conditioned, with bathrooms. Participants have access to common space within our residence as well as ample outside space which includes a pool. Rooms are separated by self-identified gender. Outside Havana, the group stays in a combination of private Cuban homes whose families are accustomed to hosting travelers, and simple, clean, bungalows. Staff always reside adjacent to participants.
What are the physical requirements for participation on this program?
Mitzvah Corps Cuba requires light physical activity (extensive walking, digging, planting, etc). While, as with all Mitzvah Corps programs, participants are expected to be independent and not require consistent one-on-one care, this program does not have any specific physical requirements. Currently, due to the status of infrastructure development in Cuba, this program is not ADA compliant; Mitzvah Corps offers wheelchair accessibility on our Civil Rights Journey, as well as in Chicago, New Orleans and the Pacific Northwest.
Will participants receive documentation of community service?
Yes! Mitzvah Corps awards 40 hours of community service for participants on the Cuba program. Please note that this number is inclusive of all social justice community engagement; participants who are looking to document specific, traditional direct service hours should contact Mitzvah Corps in advance with any questions.
What kind of clothing should participants pack?
Mitzvah Corps Cuba participants should pack casual, comfortable clothes, including outfits that can be worn and dirtied while working on labor intensive projects. Closed-toed shoes and hats are a must.
Cuba has a tropical climate with two seasons: wet and dry. The summer is the wet season, when rain showers are common, but not a daily occurrence. It is hot and humid during the day — in the 80s and 90s most days — so the occasional rain shower is welcome!
What is NOT included in the program tuition?
International airfare from Miami to Cuba (approximately $900), which includes the required tourist visa, are not included in program tuition. However, families do not need to take any action to secure international airfare or a visa. These are obtained by Mitzvah Corps on behalf of all participants, and the charges are added to each family's bill in the spring.
Do teens need spending money? Will there be a chance to exchange currency?
All necessary expenses (meals, housing, transportation, etc) are covered by Mitzvah Corps tuition. However, some families may choose to send their teen with extra money in order to purchase snacks, souvenirs, or gifts. The amount varies depending upon each family's budget, but typically $30-$40 per week is sufficient.
There will be an opportunity to exchange currency upon arrival in Cuba. There is a better exchange rate when converting euros to Cuban pesos or CUCs, so some families may choose to obtain euros while in the United States, and then convert them to Cuban currency in Cuba.
How will laundry get done?
There will be opportunities for participants to wash and hang-dry clothing. Quick-drying fabrics are encouraged for convenience.
How will teens get to and from Cuba?
The program will commence in Miami's international airport. From there, the group will fly together with their staff to Cuba. The cost of the international airfare is not included in tuition; however, Mitzvah Corps makes arrangements on behalf of the participants and passes the true cost on to the families. Please visit our TRAVEL tab for more detailed information.
How does Mitzvah Corps handle teens who become ill or injured?
The participants’ health and safety is our primary concern during the summer. In all instances where the health of a teen is in question, parents/guardians will be contacted.
The Mitzvah Corps staff are First Aid/AED and CPR certified, and will carry a variety of supplies and over-the-counter medications at all times; parents/guardians have the option to give permission for the staff to administer these medications while completing the health history forms.
If a teen needs medical attention beyond what can be provided by the staff, or there in event of an emergency, the group always has access to quality professional care.
Are there any vaccinations required to travel to Cuba?
Please visit the Centers for Disease Control website and consult your doctor for more information about vaccinations that may be applicable for travel to Cuba.
Additionally, the Union for Reform Judaism requires that all camp and travel program participants, staff and faculty must be immunized. Medical exemptions are granted in rare cases; please contact us regarding any potential exemptions prior to registration. For more information, please refer to the URJ Policy Statement on Vaccine Status.
Is it necessary to purchase a special visa or traveler's insurance?
Tourist visas are required for entry, and Mitzvah Corps obtains them on behalf of all participants; the cost of the tourist visa is approximately $100 and is not included in the program fees.
Since a valid passport is a part of the visa application, it is important to obtain your passport well in advance of departure.
Traveler's insurance is included in Mitzvah Corps tuition; policy details are available upon request.