So close and yet so far: The Jews of Cuba

Cuban Jews face challenges with hope.

PEOPLE STAND on balconies on Paseo del Prado street in Havana, Cuba. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE STAND on balconies on Paseo del Prado street in Havana, Cuba.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HAVANA, CUBA – On a quiet, tree-lined street of Havana’s Vedado, a residential neighborhood just steps away from the sea, one may come across a simple yet striking construction.
A dozen yellow-brownish marble steps lead to a large blue gate, symmetrically decorated with tarnished gold symbols including two menorahs. The building is topped with a high arch, in the center of which is a Star of David.
The Beth Shalom Synagogue, the main one of three in Havana, was built in the early 1950s. While the exterior appears to have gotten little maintenance throughout the years, it is easy to recognize the grandeur it must have exuded back then.
Next door, behind a white wrought-iron gate is the Jewish community center, where in a narrow office, a few people have made it their mission to sustain Jewish life for a community estimated at only 1,400 in the Communist-ruled Caribbean island.
“It’s a small but a vibrant community,” center president Adela Dworin told The Jerusalem Post.
Dworin, a short woman in her 80s with a big sense of humor and a distinct Yiddish accent, was born and raised in Havana. Her parents came to Cuba from Poland, like many Jews during the period between the world wars, as pogroms were taking place in eastern Europe.
“They wanted to go to America, to the US,” she explained, sitting behind her dark wooden desk, crammed with piles of paper and pictures.
“But then, it was very difficult to get American citizenship and Cuba accepted immigrants, so they thought they would stay here a short time and then they would get to the US.” However, what was supposed to have been a temporary home became a permanent one for Dworin’s family, as was the case for many others, who eventually set up communal life on the island.
They enjoyed freedom of religion and were welcomed as immigrants. By the 1950s, there were some 15,000 to 25,000 Jews in Cuba.
After the revolution in 1959, atheism was declared the official religion of the state and 90% of the Jews simply left to neighboring countries. The new law caused many to stay away from synagogues, especially if they wished to become members of the Communist Party.
Things changed again in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cuban government rewrote its constitution and decided to define Cuba as a country without religion. This allowed the Jewish community to resume their practices freely.
Adela Dworin and her colleagues at Beth Shalom all say they have never encountered antisemitism in Cuba. In fact, there is no sign of security outside or inside the synagogue – no metal detectors and no guards.
Sitting by Dworin’s desk, Jose Fernandez, who is not Jewish but describes himself as “a friend” of the community and seems to know much about it, told the Post he believes this is mostly due to basic ignorance about who Jews are.
“We are respected,” he said. “We are not supported, we are not encouraged or anything, but we have a great relationship [with the authorities]. It’s a normal relationship.”
Fernandez, a smiley elderly man with very good English, grew up across the street from Beth Shalom.
Back in the early 1950s, before the synagogue was built, he used to play baseball, Cuba’s most popular sport, in the empty lot. As a child, when construction began on his field, he was furious.
“I threw stones here!” he said with a smile. “I was going to play ball here and they said there was going to be a Jewish thing here. I didn’t know these people!” Decades later, after getting to know the community, and spending much time at the synagogue, he admits having “fallen in love.”
A CLOSE-UP view of the decades-old Beth Shalom Synagogue in Havana. (COURTESY OF JDC)
A CLOSE-UP view of the decades-old Beth Shalom Synagogue in Havana. (COURTESY OF JDC)
WITH SUCH a small community and in a country still much isolated from developments in rest of the world, some challenges arise, starting with access to kosher food.
There is only one kosher butcher shop in all of Cuba, located in Old Havana. Jews are able to go to the shop and claim their monthly ration of meat there, as the food distribution system in Cuba requires.
“Well, it’s a little difficult, but you don’t starve,” Dworin said with a smile, her eyes covered by lightly tinted glasses. “You have rice and beans and sometime you can get a live chicken from the farmer. I take it to the shohet, who performs the slaughter.
“We have about two pounds of kosher meat a month,” she explained.
The size of the community has also brought about a high rate of intermarriages, Dworin pointed out, and such couples are welcomed at the synagogue.
“We accept children from non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers and we give seminars to those who are linked to a Jew,” Dworin said.
But many of the struggles that the community faces are the struggles faced by Cubans in general and come down to money. Like the general population, Jews in Cuba live in poverty.
Under Communist rule, there are two currencies in Cuba: the regular peso, used by locals, and the peso convertible, largely used by visitors, for which the exchange rate is one dollar per peso convertible.
Much of the supplies the Jewish community needs, Dworin explained, cannot be bought in regular pesos.
This includes powdered milk or adult diapers for the seniors, who make up 20% of the community.
Unless they have enough funds from donations, or they are sent from abroad, Beth Shalom does not have access to these items.
Recently, the synagogue was finally able to repair the hole in its roof, which had been leaking for a while, through a donation as well. But beyond these practical needs, the financial situation sometimes affects Jewish life itself in Cuba.
“Because we are a very poor community, we cannot afford to maintain a rabbi,” Dworin said. “A rabbi is not like a priest; he comes with his wife and children.”
Instead, the synagogue hosts a rabbi once every few months, who shows members of the community how to lead services, funerals and more.
Fernandez said that donations come to Beth Shalom “a little bit by chance.” Since sending money to Cuba is often either impossible or comes with an exorbitant wire-transfer fee, the contributions usually come from Jewish tourists visiting the synagogue.
“If someone is coming and he has millions of dollars and [Dworin] is funny that day, he asks ‘what do you need? Money?’ and then he donates money,” he said.
“That’s the way it is.”
This has happened several times at Beth Shalom. In 2013, thanks to a donation from a wealthy American Jew, they were even able to get uniforms for the group of Cuban Jewish athletes who Beth Shalom sends annually to the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
This year, Dworin explained she is still not sure whether they will be able to afford sending a delegation to the games.
SUPPORTED BY JDC, bar/bat mitzvah programs are thriving in Cuba’s Jewish community. (COURTESY OF JDC)
SUPPORTED BY JDC, bar/bat mitzvah programs are thriving in Cuba’s Jewish community. (COURTESY OF JDC)
SOME JEWISH federations and organizations from the US and Canada help sustain the community. One of them is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has been actively and continuously involved since the early 1990s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintroduction of religious freedom, the JDC became the first American organization to be licensed to go to Cuba and work with the Jewish community there.
To jump-start communal life on the island, the JDC set up a series of programs that are still running to this day. They include chicken dinners for Shabbat, holiday services, Jewish summer camps, family camps, organizing bar mitzvas and even providing transportation for members of the community to attend synagogues.
The JDC has also helped establish a small pharmacy at Beth Shalom, distributing medicine shipped by the organization or brought by mission participants and tourists.
“There are many challenges – everything from the reality of Cuba today, the economy of the country, to having lived under 50 years of communism,” JDC assistant executive vice president Will Recant told the Post.
“One of the main challenges was Jewish education: reeducating the community to what it means to be Jewish, what Jewish life is,” he added, mentioning the Beth Shalom synagogue’s Torah, which was not kosher and had to be reworked. He brought it back from the United States himself on one of his trips.
“The JDC has to respond to whatever challenges are in the communities we work in, taking into account the physical and spiritual reality of what takes place in those countries,” he said.
Although they made clear they are grateful for the help they received from abroad, when asked whether they feel any sense of abandonment, the community expressed mixed feelings, especially when it comes to Cuban Jews who left the country.
“I would say yes,” Fernandez answered, while explaining that as a “friend” of the community, he may be more comfortable saying so. “That is something that is felt. Maybe not expressed or talked about or discussed, but it is felt. What we particularly need is actually what you are doing,” he told the Post. “We need people to know that we exist, that we have these needs and that sometimes it’s very easy to help.”
Recant said that as far as his organization is concerned, helping sustain and strengthen the Jewish community will always be a priority.
The difficult financial and social situation in Cuba has driven a large number of Cubans to leave the country.
For Jews, Israel was a welcome option.
“If the economic situation in the country improves, people won’t be thinking so much about making aliya, about immigrating to other countries,” Dworin said.
“It’s a miracle that the Jewish community exists.”
The process of making aliya, however, may come with more difficulty for Cuban nationals than for others.
Due to the lack of diplomatic relations, Israel does not have an embassy in Cuba. In order to start the aliya process, Cuban Jews use the Canadian embassy, which serves as an intermediary.
David Prinstein, Dworin’s right hand and vice president of the community, told the Post that Jews in Cuba would generally like to see the two countries interact.
“I love Cuba because I am Cuban and because of the quality of life here, which deserves to be recognized, and I love Israel because it’s my other half, the other land that we belong to,” he explained in Spanish. “I feel like a son in a divorced family where the parents don’t talk or understand each other enough and the son isn’t sure where to look.”
Despite the challenges, neither Dworin, Prinstein nor Fernandez are worried about the continuity of Jewish life in Cuba.
Children are key to the future, and Beth Shalom runs a Sunday Hebrew school program in which some 60 kids take part every week.
“It’s not just a religion: it’s a story and an identity,” Prinstein, whose children are themselves very involved with the synagogue, said. “We have been trusted with a great legacy that we have to keep passing from generation to generation with the tranquility that we have in Cuba. I really wish that you could do that around the world.”
Prinstein himself only begun learning about his Jewish roots in the 1990s, when the community underwent its revival. He had to learn about Judaism while trying to pass on the traditions to his children.
“We are trying to make sure that the youth are very active in every important moment, project, and programs – that they see and feel a strong tie to our community, to the State of Israel, to our history in Cuba and the legacy that we are leaving to them,” he explained.“We feel that the future leadership will be better prepared than we were.”
“It’s definitely a big family and a community worth betting on.”
Mike Gellis, Steven Senft and Isaac Toussier contributed to this report