You Should Know… Ellie Kaufman

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Photo by Jared Foretek.

Ellie Kaufman, 27, recently moved back to the Washington area for a new position reporting for CNN. It’s a return home for the Northern Virginia native.

But she’s also leading a return to her ancestral home in January with the One Cuba Foundation, which invited her to take on a leadership role after she went on one of its seven-day trips to Cuba last year.


She talked with the WJW about why it’s so important to bring young Cuban-Americans to the island for the first time.

What’s the idea behind the One Cuba Foundation?

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It’s soft diplomacy. They bring Cuban-Americans to Cuba for the first time for free. It’s literally modeled after Birthright, same idea, but not scaled anywhere near as big. We don’t have enough funding right now.

It started right after Obama lifted the restrictions. The philosophy is sort of, the generations above us — our parents and grandparents — they’re the generations that left. And they have a lot of issues with going back and reconciliation, for very valid reasons.


But our generation is really interested in Cuba and in that part of our heritage that we’ve been physically cut off from for a very long time. My philosophy is “Who else is going to do that work of repairing the relationship besides our generation?”

What are the trips like?

All the trips have themes. The trip I’m leading is focused on women. Cuba is still a very patriarchal society, but the reality is that a lot of forward movement on the island, toward privatization and people who are really building an entrepreneurial class, is being done by women running their own businesses, restaurants, non-profits.

Do you think a lot about parallels between the Jewish community and the Cuban community?

Obviously Jewish people experience it on a larger scale, but Cubans have a diaspora as well. Like what Jews are in New York, Cubans are in Miami. Often because of some sort of exile, they’ve had to settle these other spaces.

There’s more magic when it comes to Israel. It’s more distant and there’s religion tied into it. It’s the motherland and all the history and the mythology about a birth right to Israel. Cuba is like this really sad political story that had these horrible ramifications on people and their families for generations. At least for me, going to Cuba was much more emotional.

Obviously the hurt from having to leave still exists in a lot of places, including your family. Do you ever think twice about going back and trying to improve ties with what’s still largely the same regime?

The reality is, not going back makes the problem worse. It further separates the two countries. Yes, the regime is the same. The new president, Diaz Canal, was handpicked by Raul [Castro].

And it’s a difficult conversation we have on the trip. Some families are really for it and for some more traditional, especially South Florida families, it’s a different conversation. Some parents are never going to be supportive. But I don’t think we accomplish anything by not going back. The policy needs to change, it’s the stupidest policy in the world.

Why is connecting with that side of your heritage important for you?

I grew up in a pretty white, upper middle class community. We were the only Jews in our neighborhood; it was just very white. And when we grew up, my mom always tried to hide the fact that she was Hispanic. Even after my parents divorced she’d still use my dad’s last name. I didn’t grow up being proud of being Hispanic, I was told that it wouldn’t help you in life.

But then I studied abroad in Spain and I loved it on a really deep, emotional level. I loved hearing the Spanish and where I was, Cadiz, is very similar to Havana. When I got back I thought, I really need to start caring more about this side of me.

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