By Larry Luxner | [url=http://www.jta.org]http://www.jta.org[/url]
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (JTA) — Except for a bronze plaque in Hebrew and Spanish identifying itself as “Congregacion Hatikva,” the crumbling blue-and-white building is indistinguishable from the others along narrow, cobblestoned Calle Corona.
As the Caribbean sun begins to drop behind the clouds, an old woman shuffles by selling little pastries for about four cents each. Reggae and salsa music blare from a house across the street, while at the little synagogue, 31 Jews of all ages and colors sit in black plastic chairs, waiting patiently for Friday night services to begin.
Finally, in walks Julio Amona Gomez, the spiritual leader of Santiago de Cuba’s Jews. For the next hour, Gomez — a biochemistry professor who converted to Judaism in 1996 — leads his congregation in prayer as an electric fan struggles to keep the sweating worshipers cool.
“We haven’t had a rabbi since 1966, but every Shabbat afternoon we study the Torah, and everyone participates,” says Eugenia Faria Levy, president of Hatikva and Gomez’s sister-in-law.
Faria, who recently wrote a short history of the Jewish community here, noted that between 800 and 1,000 Jews lived in Santiago de Cuba before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Today there are no more than 80 in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, located some 525 miles east of Havana.
“Fidel has always been respectful of the Jewish community, maybe because we respected the laws of Cuba,” she said — though she adds, with some pride, that “not a single member of the Jewish community of Santiago de Cuba is a member of the Communist Party.”
After Friday night services, the congregants enjoy Shabbat dinner in an adjoining room — complete with arroz con pollo, a few rolls, tomato salad and lemonade.
“By luck, our vice president is a veterinarian,” Faria says. “Even though he’s not a shochet,” or kosher butcher, “we slaughter chickens the best way we can, trying to stay close to the rituals of kashrut.”
Such is life today for the estimated 1,300 Jews still living in Cuba, down from 15,000 or so before the revolution. Around 1,000 of them reside in Havana, with much smaller numbers in the cities of Santiago de Cuba (80); Camaguey (70); Guantanamo (60); Sancti Spiritus (45); Granma (35); Cienfuegos (20); and Santa Clara (fewer than 20).
Dr. Jose Miller is president of the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, also known as the Patronato. Located in Havana’s once-fashionable Vedado district, the Patronato is the largest and most active of Cuba’s five remaining synagogues — none of which has a rabbi.
Miller says Cuba’s Jewish population has stabilized in recent years: Some Jews move to Israel or the United States, but new people — mainly the non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages — convert and join the community.
“We’re definitely better off now than we were in the early 1990s,” said Miller, 78, a retired surgeon who has been president of the Patronato since 1981.
“In general the Jews live the same as everyone else, and in some ways we live better,” he said. “Some receive money from their families, some don’t. But the community has lots of friends. We don’t make campaigns to raise money, but if we have an opportunity we ask visitors to give us a few dollars to help out.”
Interviewed in a tiny wood-paneled office crammed with religious books, Jewish calendars and seder plates, Miller said a butcher shop in Old Havana sells kosher meat at subsidized prices to registered members of the Jewish community — which many buy, even though few actually keep kosher.
Nestor Szewach, coordinator of Cuba programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is currently the only foreigner authorized by the Cuban government to work full time with Cuba’s Jewish community. A native of Argentina, Szewach, 35, previously was community director of Tiferet Israel community center in a suburb of Buenos Aires.
He and his wife, Mara, live in Havana and are charged with supervising the Joint’s $90,000 annual budget for Cuba projects. The money supports outreach programs, holiday supplies and bus transportation for children, among other things.
“We’re the fifth couple working in Cuba since the Joint started its Cuba program in 1992,” he said. “In Argentina, I was director of a community center that took extreme security measures. Here, there are no expressions of anti-Semitism, and all the synagogues keep their doors open.”
The Patronato is the undisputed center of Jewish life in Cuba. Thanks to money from the Joint, the community runs a Sunday school for 70 children and 30 adults.
Two rented buses fan out through Havana on Sunday mornings, picking up children and their professors. They’re dropped off at the Patronato in time for breakfast at 9:45 a.m. At 1 p.m., after classes are finished, the kids are transported back home.
In every Jewish family in Cuba, “there’s someone who isn’t Jewish,” Szewach said. “But we have converted around 300 people who were already married. Before the conversion, they take 20 weeks of classes.”
Szewach said the conversions are performed by Conservative rabbis from Los Angeles, San Diego and Buenos Aires.
In the lobby of the Patronato are marble plaques commemorating a recent synagogue renovation and thanking the Greater Miami Jewish Federation for its help. There also are dozens of photos, including one showing Fidel Castro clutching a prayer book as members of the community light Chanukah candles.
Therein lies an enduring paradox for Cuba’s Jews: Despite the regime’s official hostility toward Israel and Zionism, Castro appears to have bent over backward to accommodate Cuba’s Jewish minority. Since 1992, in any case, the government has relaxed restrictions on religious believers, which has encouraged Jews to affiliate with the community.
Even so, Jews who don’t have access to hard currency suffer economically like anyone else.
One middle-aged Jewish man in Santiago de Cuba said he earns 325 pesos a month — about $12 — in his government job. But the man, who asked not to be named, said he supplements his income by running a part-time delivery service on the side.
“There are many people who live much worse than I do,” he said. “Families are leaving, and they help those who stay. But people who don’t get anything live terribly, because here you must have hard currency to eat well.”
The Patronato’s Miller, described by some community members as an ally of the Castro regime, says he’s in a difficult position.
“The government does not manipulate me,” he insisted. “What interests me is how Castro acts toward the Jewish community. If the government organizes a pro-Palestinian march in front of the U.S. Interests Section, I wouldn’t go. But for Elian” Gonzalez — the Cuban child whose mother died while bringing him to Miami, and who was returned to his father in Cuba by U.S. immigration authorities — “I went.”
“I don’t ask anyone in the Jewish community what he thinks about politics,” Miller said. “This community is not pro-Castro or anti-Castro. And if someone wants to be a dissident, let him be one — but not inside the Patronato.”
The preceding is part of a 10-part series, “Latin America´s Jews.” Funding for this series was made possible, in part, by The George Rohr Foundation, Inc.