Cuban Jews want close ties with US brethren

"There will be more Jewish brothers and sisters coming to Cuba to interact with their peers on the island, resulting in increasing help coming from the Jewish Federations."

December 19, 2014 01:00
3 minute read.
Havana, Cuba

A Cuban Jew at a synagogue in Havana. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Cuban Jews are looking forward to closer ties with their American co-religionists, a former leader of the Havana community told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

“Together with the new era of the relationship between Cuba and the US, there will be a flourishing of the relationship between the Jewish communities from the two countries,” said William Miller, the former deputy chairman of the Cuban community.

“With the opening on the licenses opportunities there will be more Jewish brothers and sisters coming to Cuba to interact with their peers on the island, resulting in increasing help coming from the Jewish Federations and Jewish congregational systems in the US,” he said.

Members of both countries’ Jewish communities celebrated the release of American Jewish aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban prison on Wednesday as part of a reset in relations between Havana and Washington in which President Barack Obama agreed to normalize relations after more than five decades of hostility.

In Havana on Wednesday, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who leads the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in New York, celebrated Hanukka with members of the local community.

“We’re here in Cuba to celebrate with the Cuban people this overcoming by spirit. Not by might and not by power, but by spirit. That verse from the Prophet Zechariah that spirit will prevail in the world and you feel it all around us here. Everyone is celebrating, everyone is dancing and there is a possibility of freedom that awaits, which is so important,” he said.

Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, said Gross’s release and the opening of ties with Cuba is a boon for Jews: In addition to the benefits accrued to all Cubans from open relations, Cuban Jews “will have stronger ties to Jewish organizations, they will be much more in the open,” she said.

Improved US-Cuba relations would have a rollover effect, removing obstacles to US ties with other Latin American countries – and this in turn would remove tensions that have affected Jewish communities, Vann said.

There are between 5,500 and 6,000 Cuban Jews within the Florida Jewish community, Greater Miami Jewish Federation Executive Director Jacob Solomon told the Post.

“They are very pleased about Alan Gross’s release. They think it’s been an extraordinary affront to decency that he has been incarcerated for so long and they are universally happy that he was released,” Solomon said.

It is too early to tell how relations between American and Cuban Jews will evolve in a new era of closer ties between the two nations, he cautioned, explaining that “the overwhelming nature of the relationship has been one based on the humanitarian needs of the Jewish community and I don’t expect that will change, certainly not in the short term.”

Much of the current work undertaken by Jewish organizations from the United States to aid co-religionists in Cuba will likely continue as it has done for some time, he said.

“There are probably no more than 1,000 or 1,500 [Jews in Cuba] and some people think that estimate is a little too large. It depends on how you define who is a member of the community.

So in terms of human, social and financial capital, I think it’s a kind of tenuous community. I’m not saying it’s going to stay like that. I think for the time being, this change is not suddenly going to make them a world player of Jewish communities.

“I don’t see that changing all that dramatically.”

Speaking to the Post by phone from Uruguay, Dr. Eduardo Kohn, director of Latin American Affairs for B’nai B’rith International, said that “the only thing we can expect is hope that this resolution of reopening diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba will let things get better, not only for the Jewish community in Cuba but for all the people [there] regarding the question of democratic life.”

Any democratic gains made by Cubans in general will certainly affect the Jewish community, he added.

The relationship between Cuba’s Jews and organized American Jewry has been “very close,” Kohn said.

Both B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have been active in Cuba, bringing books, medicines and other supplies and even rabbis and teachers, he said.

“Now with this opening I hope that all Jewish organizations will go to Cuba and see what is there and help them with everything we can because the possibility of helping will be much more open.”

Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.

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