Behind the Headlines: Cuban Jews, Facing Hardships, Are Sustained with Foreign Aid

Cuba’s small Jewish community of about 1,000 has no permanent rabbi, but does boast a Sunday school in Havana attended by 20 children who are picked up at their homes in a truck donated by a Venezuelan Jew.

These are among the tidbits of information reported by a group of three young Argentine teachers who worked in Havana and described their experiences in Buenos Aires’ Jewish newspaper, Nueva Sion.

The teachers worked with Cuban Jews as part of a program supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“The material difficulties that Cubans face are unbelievable,” one of the emissaries said, explaining how gasoline is rationed in Cuba and buses are scarce.

At first, some in the Jewish community came to programs held by the teachers just for the refreshments, but eventually they became more interested in the material presented.

The vast majority of Jews intermarry, the teachers said, noting that only 250 or 300 Jews maintain some form of regular contact with Jewish institutions in a country whose population numbers 10.7 million.

Thirty years ago — in the days before the revolution — the Jewish community comprised some 14,000 people.

Although some Cuban Jews said they were not particularly persecuted by the Communist government, religious activities of all kinds have diminished considerably since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Cuban Jews have not had a rabbi in residence for the past 10 years, but there are two rabbis and a doctor who travel there frequently to provide different services, especially among the young, who are starting to build a relationship with the community or children of mixed marriages who are converting to Judaism.

JEWS KNOW LITTLE ABOUT ISRAEL

When the Argentine teachers first went to Cuba there was only one institution holding a minyan — “in the Cuban way,” with only eight people — twice daily.

The teachers found that with the exception of Adath Israel, a community in Old Havana, the rest of the congregations hold religious services only on Saturday morning. There is also a Sunday school.

Like most people in Cuba, Jews know little about Israel or Zionism.

The Cuban government has opposed the Israeli government in every world forum since 1967, when Havana unilaterally broke relations with the Jewish state.

Since then Cuba has voted enthusiastically with former Soviet bloc countries and Arab countries in support of resolutions condemning Israeli presence in the territories as well as the nowoverturned U.N. General Assembly resolution branding Zionism as racism.

The emissaries said they were told by Cuban Jews that the Communist Party has relaxed its restrictions regarding religious matters. A recent party congress decided that any person observing any religion could join the party and obtain political or government jobs.

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