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Behind the Headlines Cuba Liberalizing Its Religious Liberty Policy Toward Cuban Jews

The Cuban government, reversing a long-standing policy, has agreed to liberalize its religious liberty policy toward the small Cuban Jewish community, including permission for a rabbi to visit and conduct religious services on major Jewish holy days, the American Jewish Committee reported today.

The announcement of improved religious conditions for Cuban Jewry was made by Dr. Jose Felipe Carneado, director of the Religious Affairs Division of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (Oficina de Asuntos Religiosos del Comite Central del PCC), during a meeting held on March 19 with three leaders of the Cuban Jewish community: Dr. Jose Miller, president of the Jewish Community of Havana; Moises Asis, secretary general, and Abraham Berezniak, a Jewish leader.

Details of the liberalized policy were made known by Asis in a communication sent to Jacobo Kovadloff, an Argentinian who is director of South American affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Leo Nevas, chairman of the AJC’s International Relations Commission, and Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, AJC’s international relations director, characterized the development as “an important breakthrough for the continuity and survival of the 800-member Cuban Jewish community.”

WIDE-RANGING AGREEMENT CITED

According to the AJC report, the Cuban official has agreed “to help Cuban Jewry open a kosher restaurant in Old Havana, maintain and take care of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and open a Sunday religious school for Jewish children and young people.

Significantly, Carneado agreed also to grant visas to rabbis who will be allowed to conduct religious services during the major Jewish holy days. According to Kovadloff, “in previous years, rabbis who had visited Havana had been denied the right to officiate in the synagogues.”

The Cuban government promised also to allow a mohel, a ritual circumcizer for initiating Jewish children into the covenant of Judaism, to come to Cuba for carrying out this basic religious tradition.

The AJC was informed that Carneado has invited the Cuban Jewish leaders to submit to him a written report on the current situation of the Cuban Jewish community and its major religious, educational, and cultural problems, promising that “the Cuban government is willing to help solve these problems.”

Nevas and Tanenbaum made public for the first time the fact that Kovadloff had visited Cuba three times during the past two years in order to express solidarity with Cuban Hebrews. (Cuba is the only Latin American country in which Jews are called “Hebrews” since the word “Jews” still retains a derogatory connotation in Spanish.)

During his visits, Kovadloff brought as gifts from the American Jewish Committee to the Cuban Jewish community many Spanish and English-language books, records and cassettes of Jewish religious and cultural content. Among recent contributions to the Havana Jewish Patronato, the library and communal institution, were Jewish prayer books in Spanish (Devocionario Judio, in Spanish and Hebrew), the Passover Hagadah, and the Sabbath Hagadah.

Nevas and Tanenbaum reported that Kovadloff last traveled to Cuba in September 1983, where he participated in Yom Kippur and Succot services with Cuban Jews. They reported also that during the past 20 years, American Jewish Committee offices in Mexico, directed by Sergio Nudelstejer, and in Buenos Aires have regularly sent religious and educational materials to Cuban Jewry. Similar materials have been sent to Havana by the AMIA, the Jewish Federation of Argentina.

The AJC officials made known also that the Canadian Jewish Congress annually sends kosher Passover foods, matzos, and wine to Cuban Jewry. Jewish ritual slaughtering is also allowed for observant Cuban Jews at the Havana abatoir.

Kovadloff reported that many books on “Hebrews” and on religious-ethnic pluralism have been made available to the Jose Marti National Library in Havana. He said he found only two Spanish-language anti-Semitic publications in that library, published in Mexico and Moscow.

Nevas and Tanenbaum disclosed that Kovadloff had met in recent years with high-ranking Cuban government officials to arrange for the emigration of Jews who had requested exit permits. Noting that President Fidel Castro and Cuban officials had met in recent years with American Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders, Nevas and Tanenbaum expressed concern over the fact that Cuban Jewish leaders had been denied a meeting with Carneado and other government officials for some 10 years.

Kovadloff played a crucial role in urging that this discrimination come to an end, and he encouraged the Cuban Jewish leaders to seek the present meeting, which proved to be positive and constructive.

The AJC was informed also by the Cuban Jewish spokesman that with the permission of the government they recently (March 25) held a public commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish Jewish scholar.

POSSIBLE NEW ERA

In their communication to the AJC, the Cuban Jewish leaders expressed the hope that these developments “will mark the beginning of a new era for the (Hebrew) community.”

At the next meeting of the Steering Committee of the AJC’s International Relations Commission, Nevas and Tanenbaum said, “we will examine what concrete steps might be taken to help the Cuban Jewish community realize to its fullest these new possibilities for enriching their spiritual and cultural life as Jews.”

They said also that discussion would take place to see what could be done to help improve relations between Cuba and the United States as well as between Cuba and Israel.

About 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba prior to the 1958 Cuban revolution. The Hebrew Community House, with about 200 members, is the largest of three synagogues in Cuba that remain open.

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