To mark their bar mitzvahs, longtime friends and classmates at Robbins Hebrew Academy Benny Schneeweiss, Noah Cohn, Jeremy Urbach and Adin Fine decided they wanted to do something unconventional.
In lieu of parties, the four Grade 7 students resolved to take a trip – assuming their parents gave them permission, that is.
They wanted do something fun, but also something with a sense of meaning. The boys and their families brainstormed and came up with the idea for a father-son trip to Cuba, where the boys and their dads could learn about the Cuban Jewish community and personally deliver needed medical and other supplies to people there.
“We all wanted to go on a trip, but we wanted to incorporate some idea of charity. We decided to go to Cuba because there are lots of people that need help, and it’s a really interesting country,” said Cohn.
“We thought it would be fun to spend time with our friends and our dads,” Urbach added.
They did some research and contacted Havana’s La Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba-El Patronato synagogue (dubbed the Patronato in English), which operates a free pharmacy for the city’s Jewish community.
When the Patronato director told them that a wheelchair was greatly needed, the boys decided to raise the $350 needed to buy one by collecting empty bottles and cans and returning them to the LCBO or Beer Store for five or 10 cents apiece.
They set up an email address, as well as Facebook and Instagram pages, and told people to contact them if they had empty bottles and cans. “It was kind of like a clean-up service,” joked Schneeweiss.
With their moms, the four spent nearly every day after school from December to May picking up empties from friends and acquaintances and returning them to liquor and beer stores. A number of shuls were eager to have bottles picked up after bar mitzvahs and other parties. Several of the boys also set up drop-off boxes at their homes, and they’d sometimes wake up to find people had dropped off bottles or cans.
A month or so into the project, they were pleasantly surprised to see they had surpassed their initial fundraising goal.
“We thought it would be harder to raise money,” said Fine. “When we set the goal for one wheelchair, we thought we’d just get that and a tiny bit more… but we passed that goal by a lot.”
By May, they had collected and returned a total of 3,400 bottles and cans, and, with additional help from the community, had raised enough money to purchase two additional wheelchairs, as well as medicine, sports equipment and candy for the children of the Havana Jewish community.
Individuals and businesses helped bolster their fundraising: the pharmaceutical company Apotex donated several thousand dollars’ worth of medicine for Patronato clients; a local diabetes camp gave several thousand syringes for a Cuban Jewish child who couldn’t get them locally; a dentist donated 200 toothbrushes; and one of the boys’ cousins pledged to match every $350 they raised, bringing their $1,050 to $2,100.
Several hundred dollars more were donated, and the final total came in at $2,282.
The group arrived in Cuba May 13 and spent three days visiting the Havana Jewish community. They delivered and helped sort the supplies, and they learned about the history of Cuba’s 1,500 Jews, who mostly live in Havana. They also learned about their current hardships, such as poverty and lack of basic goods and services.
“The biggest thing we learned was how different our lives are from there,” Cohn said. “Canada is a free country and they live under a Communist country. We realized how lucky we all are. We have such easy access to things that we take for granted.”