A look at Cuba’s dwindling Jewish community

At its height, Cuba was home to roughly 20,000 Jews. Now that number teeters around 1,000, depending on whom you ask.

November 4, 2016 23:53
B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge

Simon Goldstein, first vice president of the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, displays the Torah scrolls kept in the Centro Sefaradi Hebreo. (photo credit: JILL WAGNER)

From afar, these fresh-faced teenagers look like they could be cast on a billboard – advertising the good life. They are diverse: dark, tanned skin topped with shiny brown hair; Blonde tresses framing sparkling blue eyes; these teens are slender and stylish. They’re waist-deep in the crystal clear water of the Caribbean, splashing and teasing each other, laughing and gossiping. In so many ways they are just like typical teens. Except, they are not.

These dozen or so teens make up a large portion of Havana’s young Jewish community. If they decide to leave Cuba – to start a new life with more opportunity in Israel, the United States or Panama – they’ll take what’s left of Cuba’s once-thriving Jewish community with them.

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In other words, the future of Cuban Jewry rests on their shoulders.

At its height, Cuba was home to roughly 20,000 Jews. Now that number teeters around 1,000, depending on whom you ask. Most of the community is elderly. By most estimates, only about 75-100 Jewish teens and 20-somethings currently live in Cuba.

We met this group during a B’nai B’rith mission to Havana in the spring.

The program’s goal is to provide support to the Jews living there, and learn about Jewish culture and identity in Cuba.

Our group consisted of seven young Jewish professionals from the US.

Admittedly, when I signed up for the trip a few months prior I saw it as a vehicle to visit – legally – the isolated island nation. At the time, I was more interested in smoking a Cuban cigar and cruising around Havana in a 1950s Chevy than exploring Cuba’s Jewish roots. That changed before we even left for the airport.

Our group met at a hotel in Miami.

Trip organizers told us to bring an extra carry-on bag and fill it with 15 pounds of supplies; everything from notebooks and crayons for the kids to walkers and adult diapers for the senior citizens. It wasn’t until our group met in a hotel conference room to sort through our bags that it really sunk in: If we don’t physically bring these items with us, there’s a pretty good chance the community there will never have them.

Sienna Girgenti, the assistant director for the International Center for Human rights and Public Policy at B’Nai B’rith, says the organization is in constant communication with the local leaders on the ground, who relay the needs of the community. Many medicines and other supplies are simply not produced or accessible in Cuba. And if and when they are, they’re sold at a premium, often on the black market.

We arrived in Cuba the next morning.

It’s hard not to feel like you’ve stepped out of a time machine. Everything, from the cars to the plumbing system, seems like it’s still in the 1950s.

We take in the sites: Revolution Square with its massive statues of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; the Malecon, Old Havana. We’re just about 300 miles (483 km.) from Miami but it feels like a different world.

Our Jewish tour begins the next day.

First stop: Temple Beth Shalom, the Conservative Synagogue in Havana.

It’s here that we first meet the dozen or so Jewish teenagers. Many of their grandparents and great grandparents fled Europe during the Holocaust. Some hoped to take refuge in America but found safe haven in Cuba instead. Others have Cuban roots that go back before that; great grandparents who left Turkey after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

REGARDLESS OF why they came – or when – Jewish-Cuban life before the Revolution was pretty good. Anti-Semitism was mostly non-existent, and the Jewish community could practice their religion, open businesses and live freely.

Things changed in 1959 when Fidel Castro led the Communist Revolution and overthrew the government.

Roughly 95 percent of the Jewish Cubans left, mostly for the US, Argentina and Israel. What happened to the other five percent? They either didn’t have the resources – or the will – to pick up and start over once again. And six decades later, what’s left is a small but resilient Cuban-Jewish community.

Adela Dworin runs the Conservative Synagogue and is somewhat of a de jure ambassador to Cuba, welcoming Jews from around the world when they visit.

She’s in her 80s; her parents came here from Eastern Europe and stayed during and after the Revolution.

Dworin paints a rosy picture of life under communism. She says she once invited Fidel Castro to a Hanukka party. He didn’t know what Hanukka was so she explained it in a way he would understand: it’s “a revolution of the Jews.” Adela says Castro liked what he heard and showed up. It feels like she’s told that story a hundred times before – as evidence of some type of coexistence (real or fabricated) of Jewish life and Communism – and will likely tell it a hundred times more, but it elicited the expected chuckle.

She gave us a tour of the synagogue and Jewish center, which includes a library and computer area, where the teens checked Facebook and Instagram.

There’s even a pharmacy with shelves filled with medicine. It’s paid for and maintained mostly with donations.

The money doesn’t just go to the Jewish community. The Creating Horizons Tikun Olam Project works with the Cuban population, offering dance classes and English lessons.

We served the kids there some snacks and gave them some of the books we brought from the US. The only real sign of Jewish identity is a memorial that traces the history of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the role that Cuba played in welcoming Jews who were fleeing Eastern Europe.

Another stop during our visit: one of Havana’s century-old Jewish cemeteries.

It’s run down, with weeds growing over grave stones, signs of vandalism and an overall feeling of abandonment.

William Miller, whose grandfather was a pillar in the Jewish community and is buried in the cemetery, explained the problem: The Cuban Jewish community relies on donations from abroad, and it’s hard to ask people to give money for the dead when there is so much need amongst the living.

However, the highlight of the trip was getting to know the group of Jewish teens and 20-somethings.

We met the group at the beach for Shabbatan, or a celebration held on Shabbat. Technically, Americans are still not allowed to visit Cuba for tourism purposes, so had it not been for the religious component of our day, our group wouldn’t have been able to spend time at the beach. (And considering the crystal clear water and white sand that would have been a great shame.) Most of the young people we’ve met have been to Israel through programs like Birthright or by participating in the Maccabi games. Some had recently returned from the Pan American games in Chile.

Our group leader, Sienna, explained that up until just two years ago it was extremely difficult for Cubans to get out of the country. Not only were they required to get a visa for their destination country – no easy feat in and of itself – but were also required to receive authorization from the Cuban government for their travels.

Today, the government has eliminated the need to receive Cuban authorization, although travelers still need to get a visa for travel.

Over lunch, a conversation in “Spanglish” and facilitated by a member of our group who speaks Spanish, revealed the complex relationship the young people have with Cuba. We sat with two sisters and their friend. They told us they feel a connection to this country, but it’s not an easy life. And future opportunities are limited.

Most of them said they would want to move to the US but that they are not really optimistic about the thawing of US/Cuban relations.

AT THE END of 2014, the Obama administration announced it would work to normalize relations between the US and Cuba. The new rules make it easier for US companies to establish a presence in Cuba, and ease trade and travel restrictions.

Since then, a handful of American airlines have been given permission to fly commercial flights between the US and Cuba. Starwood Hotels & Resorts said it would pump millions of dollars into revitalizing three Cuban hotels. Even tech companies like Google said they’d work to bring high-speed Internet to the island.

The girls told us they don’t believe much, if any, of the economic opportunities will trickle down to the people who need them most. We asked them what would happen if the US opened its border to let Cubans in. They said, without hesitation, everyone would leave.

Most Cubans are employed by the government. Up until recently, they were all employed by the government. School is free. But once you graduate, salaries are set, and everyone from doctors to waiters bring home a similar paycheck.

Even on the higher end of the scale, it’s not always enough to make ends meet.

In the past few years, the government has allowed private businesses to open, but it’s still a relatively small percentage of the population who own them.

If their relationship to Cuba is conflicted, the members of the Jewish community’s relationship to Judaism is not. For the most part, they’re the product of mixed marriages or conversions. Still, they have a strong Jewish identity, have been bar/bat mitzva-ed and either by necessity or desire, seem to spend a big portion of their time at the Jewish Center. After lunch they lead a prayer service that puts most of our group to shame.

In some ways, watching the young members of the community on the beach is like watching the last of the dinosaurs.

Most of them – like young people of every religion in Cuba – want to leave.

There’s a long, rich history of Jewish life in the country. Cuban Jews have made contributions in many sectors, from the sugar to the clothing industries. And for many, Cuba saved them from Hitler’s reach. Still, it’s easy to understand why young Cuban Jews feel they’d have a better life elsewhere.

David Cheni, 25, is moving as soon as he finishes college. He tells me he’s torn about the prospect. He doesn’t want to leave friends and family, and is ultimately aware that if all of his friends follow his lead, in a couple of decades there will be no more Jews left in Cuba.

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