by Evan Silverstein | PC USA NEWS
Easing of suppression brings revival of faith community
HAVANA, Cuba - For Moises Rodriguez, growing up Jewish in today’s Cuba means spending hours each week studying Judaism and its teachings and the Hebrew language.
The 13-year-old boy with short black hair and tan skin is a self-proclaimed
Jew who worships and attends Hebrew-Sunday school at Bet Shalom, the main synagogue in this culturally diverse capital city.
“I feel good in the synagogue, more than any other place, because I practice Jewish,” Rodriguez said in halting English. “I have many friends at the synagogue. The synagogue is part of my life. Like a student, like a child.”
Rodriguez’s mother is not Jewish, but thanks to his Jewish-born Cuban father, he grew up with an awareness of the faith. Rodriguez started attending services at the conservative synagogue as a child, first with his uncle, then on his own.
Under Jewish law, Jewish identity is inherited maternally, so Rodriguez is
preparing for the day he will officially convert to Judaism.
He also is looking forward to his eventual Bar Mitzvah, a time-honored
coming-of-age ceremony for 13-year-old Jewish males.
Such traditional Jewish ceremonies, now quite common in Cuba, were nearly unthinkable before Rodriguez was born. Until the early 1990s, a Bar Mitzvah hadn’t been celebrated in Havana since 1973.
Cuba, an island about 90 miles south of Key West, FL, was virtually cut off
from the rest of the Jewish world after the 1959 revolution that brought
Fidel Castro to power.
Support for Castro was nearly universal among the island’s 15,000 Jews, as
among most Cubans, when Castro overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Castro declared Cuba an atheist state, nationalized businesses and other properties and introduced communism. Within two years, more than 90 percent of Cuban Jews had joined thousands of others in fleeing their island homeland.
Most community leaders, virtually all rabbis and teachers and many business people were among the Jews that emigrated from Cuba. Many relocated to southern Florida, while others went to Mexico, Venezuela and Israel.
Most of the estimated 350 Cuban Jews who stayed assimilated almost totally, avoiding public involvement with Judaism because of the government’s opposition. Intermarriage was widespread. However, some families did continue observing Shabbat and major Jewish holidays in their homes, even though candles, bread and other necessary supplies were scarce.
“It was a difficult time,” said Adela Dworin, vice president of the Jewish
community in Havana and its unofficial historian. “We didn’t have a minyan
(quorum for praying as a community), even for the high holidays. But we never closed the synagogue.”
Things are better today. Rodriguez is coming of age in a small but thriving
Jewish community that survived more than three decades of dormancy. About 90 percent of Cuban Jews live in the capital.
Three of the city’s five synagogues survived the revolution and are still in
operation today: Adath Israel Orthodox Synagogue; a Sephardic synagogue; and conservative Bet Shalom, which is attached to the Patronato, Havana’s Jewish Community Center.
In 1995, the government allowed a congregation of about 90 Jews to reclaim its former synagogue property in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s
Three years later, on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), the Jewish
community in Camaguey, Cuba, rededicated a new synagogue in a whitewashed turn-of-the-century house. It was the first Jewish temple established since the revolution.
The Jewish population is still a far cry from pre-revolution levels, when it
peaked at about 15,000; but Jewish communal life has undergone a revival
nationwide the past 12 years.
Gradual membership growth and a new sense of religious pride have
re-energized the Jewish community after its 30-year slumber. Jews are
rebuilding their organizations and synagogues, attracting young new members and filling sanctuaries for religious services.
During this recent renaissance, Cuba’s Jewish population has more than
doubled, from about 700 in 1991 to 1,500 today, according to the American
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which assists the Cuban Jewish
community and others worldwide.
“The synagogue is growing all the time,” Rodriguez said, looking up from a
booklet of class notes. “More people every day come and study with us.”
The Jewish reawaking was sparked in large part by a dramatic change in
national policy toward religious groups. Young people are converting to
Judaism in record numbers.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Cuban National Assembly
passed a law in November 1991 allowing Cubans to be members of the Communist Party and to participate in religious associations.
The following year, the constitution was changed to define Cuba not as an
“atheistic” state but a “secular” one.
These changes, and the 1998 visit to Havana by Pope John Paul II, produced a shift in the country’s view of religion. Christian and Jewish communities began growing exponentially as the government relaxed its grip. Cubans of all faiths were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to attend services and study religion.
“The community is alive, that is the most important (thing),” Dworin said.
“We have a Jewish community which is proud to be Jewish. Now you can see young people, you can see children coming to the synagogue.”
Rodriguez is one of a growing number of young Cubans who regularly attend Shabbat services at Bet Shalom, which has no full-time rabbis.
Lay members handle most religious matters, serving as rabbis and cantors for regular Spanish-Hebrew services, which feature spirited singing and
traditional readings from the sacred Torah scrolls. Rabbis, primarily from
Latin America, visit every few months for rituals that require the
involvement of clergy.
Like Rodriguez, many new members are children of interfaith couples who want to convert to Judaism - another visible sign of the rekindling of Jewish life on this Caribbean island nation of 11 million people. Sixty percent of the
Cuban Jews are believed to be converts.
Asked why he wants to convert, Rodriguez said: “I like practicing Jewish
because here (at Bet Shalom) I have many friends. I study much here at the synagogue. I listen to much about history, philosophy other things. It’s very good. It’s very interesting.”
Jewish involvement in Cuba dates to the time of Christopher Columbus, when the Spanish Inquisition forced thousands of Jews to convert or leave Spain. Many joined Columbus’ fleet on its voyages to the Americas. Columbus’ translator, Luis de Torres, is believed to be the first Jew in Cuba.
After the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, as America’s influence in Cuba increased, more Jews immigrated to the island, including retired U.S. servicemen. That is about when the first synagogue opened in Cuba.
The Jewish community is also a mix of Sephardic Jews, who came mainly from Turkey in the early part of the 20th century; and Ashkenazi Jews, who mostly arrived as refugees from Europe before and during World War II.
Today, Jewish visitors to Cuba from the United States, Canada and elsewhere, are finding a Jewish community coming back to life.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Renee Sleischer, of Cleveland, OH, who was
visiting the Patronato with a group from the Jewish Community Center in
Chicago, IL. “It’s absolutely fabulous. I guess they feel they really are
family here at the synagogue. The people, it brings them all together and
gives them charity and hope and love.”
Like other visitors, the Chicago group donated items such as medicines,
eyeglasses and mix for making potato pancakes or latkes (pronounced LOT-ka) to be used at the synagogue during next month’s celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.
However, Cuba’s resurgent Jewish community still faces problems, and relies on many outside organizations for assistance.
Although there is little to no anti-Semitism in Cuba, daily life is hard for
all Cubans. The average person earns $15 to $20 per month. Food is rationed. Most quality items must be purchased with U.S. dollars, which are hard to come by for most Cubans.
A doctor who earns $20 per month might have to supplement his state paid
income by working at a more lucrative job, driving a cab or waiting tables in
“This is a poor community, and we need support to maintain our Jewish
lifestyle and our institutions,” said Dr. Jose Miller, a retired physician
and longtime president of the Havana Jewish community. “We are getting that support. That’s why it’s important for us to have this force, the synagogue full of visitors from the United States and from other cities here. It’s very important.”
The sanctuary at Bet Shalom, opened a half-century ago, has been restored in recent years after decades of neglect. Leaders of smaller communities across the island - Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba - came to the capital to rededicate the synagogue and community center, a milestone for the Jewish community.
Organizations that meet regularly there include local affiliates of Hadassah
and B’nai B’rith.
“We also have a senior citizens’ group, a youth group, and even a handicapped group,” Dworin said of Bet Shalom and the Patronato.
The B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge in Cuba, with 50 members, celebrated its
60th anniversary in May.
Patronato officials are planning a Hanukkah party next month, and a Purim
party is scheduled during March.
Famous visitors to the Patronato have included Fidel Castro himself. His
image is featured in photos taken during the 1998 Hanukkah party, which adorn the wall outside the sanctuary at Bet Shalom. Film director Steven Spielberg, an American Jew, has visited the synagogue and an Ashkenazi cemetery in Havana.
The Patronato complex also features a pharmacy supported by groups including the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project that has antibiotics, vitamins, medications and supplies not usually available in government pharmacies, all dispensed by a doctor and two pharmacists.
The Tzedakah Fund, another B’nai B’rith project, supplements the limited
incomes of elderly and retired members of the Jewish community, who receive a $10 monthly benefit and a small food ration from the government. The fund adds another $10 per month.
Additional services are added frequently as the island’s Jewish population
continues to increase.
“It’s a process, a complicated process,” Rodriguez said of the Jewish
community’s revival. “All day, more people come to the synagogue. All week, all the time.”