The Jews of Cuba offer one of the most interesting studies in world Jewry. The Jews have been integral to Cuba's daily life for centuries. EARLY HISTORY The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus occurred, in part, to the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to convert or leave Spain. Many of these Jews joined Columbus' fleet. One was Columbus' translator, Luis de Torres, who is believed to be the first Jewish decedent in Cuba. Cuba's fertile soil allowed the early settlers to begin development of the sugar and tobacco industries.
After the Spanish-American War, when Spain and the United States came to peace, the America's influence in Cuba increased, and more Jews immigrated to the island. At this time, the first synagogue opened. A Jewish root was firmly planted in Cuba.
The next migration of Jews to Cuba occurred in the years following World War I. Many Jews from Turkey and Europe were suffering from anti-Semitism, social & political upheaval, as well as growing Nazi persecution. Cuba provided a fertile and welcome refuge. Many Jews opened factories and stores, and were primarily involved in the apparel industries. Some became doctors, lawyers and bankers. Some held high government positions. Everyone prospered. The Jewish population grew to approximately 25,000 people by 1945.
After WWII, many Jews returned to their European homeland or emigrated to the United States. Cuban Jews prospered in the 1950s, which gave way to the revolution in 1959. All Cubans were dramatically impacted when the government nationalized private businesses and other properties.
The arrival of the Soviets led to an atheist state. Free enterprise and religious worship were discouraged. 90% of Cuba's Jews left the island. Although synagogues stayed open, Judaism declined.
SYNAGOGUES IN CUBA. In Havana, there are three synagogues. The largest is the Temple Beth Shalom, built in 1957 before the revolution. At that time, there were 15,000 Cuban Jews --- ten times the present Jewish population. By the 1990s, the synagogue had deteriorated due to a lack of funds. Windows were broken. Birds were nesting above the pulpit. Today, this 300-seat synagogue has been restored with the help of friends in the United States, Canada and other countries. It reopened in May of 2000.
Connected to the Beth Shalom is the Patronato, which functions as Cuba's Jewish community center. The Patronato features a full library, with an impressive collection of Jewish books, including many texts in Yiddish. The library is a popular source of reference and education for Jews throughout the island. Dr. Jose Miller is the president of the Jewish community, and Adela Dworin is the vice-president.
The Patronato houses a variety of facilities. These include a social hall used by the entire community for holidays, celebrations, community meetings and anything else they find relevant to their daily lives. On Saturdays, a meal is served to the congregation. The food is provided by friends across the globe, including B'nai B'rith, JDC, and the Canadian Jewish Congress. These services are not only spiritually important, but, with food and supplies scarce, they offer many congregants their only full meal of the week.
The Patronato complex also boasts a pharmacy, where the B'nai B'rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project and other supporters try keep the shelves well stocked with antibiotics, vitamins, prescription & over-the-counter medications, as well as medical supplies. Government pharmacies are usually sparse. Dr. Rosa Behar administers the pharmacy and distributes these important supplies to the Jewish communities throughout the island. In addition, the Patronato distributes other necessities such as clothing, powdered milk, food and religious items received from humanitarian efforts.
ADATH ISRAEL & SEPHARDIC SYNAGOGUES The second synagogue in Havana is the Adath Israel, an Orthodox congregation. They are also supplied by the Patronato, and helped by internationally by Chabad and other organizations. The Adath Israel synagogue offers morning and evening services, a Mikvah and a kosher butcher shop. The butcher shop nearby has a limited supply of meat for those who are fortunate to have a special ration. This synagogue in the old city is also trying to renovate its facility, but it is a slow process because of a lack of funds.
Lastly, is the Sephardic synagogue. It is located in the Vadado section of Havana, not far from the Patronato. They have an active congregation that also interacts with the rest of the Jewish community.
None of the Cuban synagogues have a permanent rabbi. Periodically, rabbis visit from other countries (especially South America.) These visits are sponsored by various organizations. Sometimes, a rabbi will come to the island on his own to help congregations with religious needs that require a rabbi (such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs).
CUBAN JEWS TODAY
The Jewish community includes an inspiring group of young people who have devoted themselves to performing religious services. Some are as young as fourteen years old. Young women are also proficient in Hebrew and are able to conduct weekly services. Friday evening is usually set aside for young people, with Saturday devoted to older members of the congregation. The community includes some individuals who joined through conversion, which is only permitted when the person has a near relative who is Jewish.
When the Soviets left in 1990, the Cuban government declared that communism and religion could coexist. The Jewish community is now enjoying a revival. The disarray of the Soviet era has given way to a true sense of cohesiveness today. They are Jews that the rest of the world can look to with pride.
Although there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba, daily life is very hard for all Cubans. The average person earns between $15 and $35 per month. Food is rationed. Not many quality items are available in pesos, and must be purchased with U.S. dollars (something not everyone has access to.) A doctor earning $35 per month may hope to supplement his income as a cab driver or a waiter, who can earn $10 a day in tips.
Nevertheless, the Jewish World can be proud of their support to the Jews of Cuba --- support that will continue to be needed in the near future.
There was significant Jewish immigration to Cuba in the early 20th century: from Turkey following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and from eastern Europe and Russia. By 1924 there were 24,000 Jews in Cuba, with many working in its garment industry. In the 1930s, additional Jewish immigrants came from Europe as a result of Nazi and fascist persecution; some hoped to get to the United States but decided to stay in Cuba. In 1959 before the Revolution, an estimated 15,000 Jews lived in Havana, where they had five synagogues. More Jewish Cubans lived outside the capital.
Nearly 95% of Jews left Cuba for the United States after the arrival of Fidel Castro and his implementation of a communist government. As part of the middle class, some Jews were made to serve in forced labor camps in the 1960s, but they were not targeted as an ethnic group by Castro's government.
Several Jews played prominent roles in the Revolution, including Fabio Grobart, Manuel (Stolik) Novigrod, and Enrique Oltuski.
Since the late 20th century, a large Jewish Cuban-American community has developed in South Florida. Modern Cuba has some new communities of Middle Eastern descent, including Jewish and Lebanese populations.
The Cuban Coordinating Commission, the official governmental unit for the Jewish Community, recognized 1,201 persons as Jewish in 2001 for the purpose of distributing Passover food.
In February 2007 The New York Times estimated that there are about 1,500 known Jews living in Cuba, most of them (about 1,100) living in Havana. Cuba has one kosher butcher shop on the entire island. For a time it had no rabbi, but by 2007, one was based in a Havana synagogue. He often encourages visiting Jews to give Tzedakah (charity) for the Jewish Cubans and for Israel. Alan Gross traveled to Cuba to help the small Jewish community, but he was detained in Cuba from 2009 to 2014. Some Jewish Americans originally from Cuba are also fierce critics of the Cuban regime like Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and academic Ruth Behar. Israel also continues to have an embargo against Cuba.
Adath Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue remaining in Cuba. In December 2006, the Cuban Jewish community celebrated its 100th anniversary.
When a Jewish revival began in Cuba in 1991, eight-year-old Monica del Pino was ready and waiting.
From 1959 until that day, the small group of Jews who remained in Cuba—just six percent of the pre-Revolution population—had accustomed itself to keeping a low profile. But when the government eased restrictions on religious practices in 1991, Federation partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) swept in to meet an eager community, including a very eager Monica.
She jumped at the opportunity to enroll in one of Havana’s new Sunday schools in the renovated Beth Shalom Synagogue and Patronato Community Center. Other Jewish communal programs, many supported by JDC, were there for her at each step: Maccabi Cuba Youth Organization activities, a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, a visit to her family’s old village in Poland through March of the Living and, her personal favorite, Israeli folk dancing.
Today, Monica is a married and the mother of a three year old, but she still competes in Israeli dance troupes at home and around the world.
A JEWISH CUBAN REVOLUTION
JDC has been working with the Cuban community for the past 25 years to build a solid Jewish infrastructure.
Among the fruits of their collective labor are a pharmacy at the Patronato that benefits Jews throughout the island, Shabbat dinners at each of the country’s five synagogues, youth camps, a bar/bat mitzvah study program and visiting rabbis who teach and perform lifecycle events.
PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION
“Cuban Jews have been working hard to keep Judaism alive in Cuba,” Monica says. She would know. She’s not only teaching children at the same Sunday school she attended, she’s putting her degree in computer engineering and information technology to work for the community, overseeing the Jewish library at the Patronato, serving as assistant to the community’s president and helping support smaller communities in the country’s central and eastern provinces.
As Monica puts it, she and her family are “involved in all the activities that we can be.” And for good reason—now that she is a parent, her work has become profoundly more personal. But with JDC’s commitment to Jewish life in Cuba, she has no worries about the future. “JDC’s assistance has been vital for the existence of Judaism here,” she says. “And it keeps us optimistic about our future.”
During the Spanish colonial rule that lasted until 1898, very few Jews lived in Cuba, and nearly all of them were apostates or Jews from the Dutch Antilles holding.
Cuba was a popular transit point for east European immigrants awaiting admission to the United States. Some of these Jews remained in Cuba. In the 1930s, a central Jewish committee was created to represent all Jewish groups. The plight of the Havana-bound passengers stranded on the German liner St. Louis dramatized the tragedy of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, yet they were also denied admission to Cuba. In 1952 there were more than 12,000 Jews in Cuba; 75% lived in Havana and the rest in the rural provinces. At that time, Ashkenazim accounted for some three-quarters of the community. Cuban Jews participated in an active communal life, and they published a number of newspapers in Yiddish and Spanish with diverse religious and political orientations. Although the Cuban revolution was not directed against Jews, it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily middle class. The great majority of Cuban Jews, together with many of their non-Jewish countrymen, found sanctuary in Miami, Florida. Most of the remaining Jews in Cuba live in Havana.
COMMUNAL AND RELIGIOUS LIFE
The Casa de la Communidad Hebrea de Cuba is the Jewish communal organization. Four synagogues, two Sephardi and two Ashkenazi, still function.
The Santiago de Cuba synagogue was rededicated in 1995 to serve the city's 80 Jews.
Communist Cuba maintained normal relations with Israel until 1973, when it joined the Third World in severing diplomatic ties. Aliya: Since 1948, 661 Cuban Jews have emigrated to Israel.
Comision Coordinadora de las Sociedades
Religiosas Hebreas de Cuba, Calle I Esq.13
Vedado-Ciudad de la Habana 10400
Tel. 53 7 328 953, Fax 53 7 333 778
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