Behind the Headlines: Jews of Cuba Undergoing a Communal Renaissance

A quiet revolution is brewing in Havana. As the Cuban economy crumbles, crippled by the disintegration of the Soviet empire and a 30-year U.S. embargo, the island’s tiny Jewish community is undergoing a startling renaissance.

Last year, there were about 750 known Jews in Cuba. This year, there are more than 1,200. Some are new converts, the non-Jewish spouses and children of Cuban Jews. Others are Jewish families that kept their identity under wraps during three decades of state-sponsored atheism.

Last year, Havana’s three synagogues limped along, as the elderly worshippers moved from shul to shul on Shabbat to help make up minyans.

This year, on one Thursday morning in August, 40 Jews gathered for services at Adath Yisrael, Havana’s main Ashkenazic synagogue.

Most were young and uncertain of proper synagogue procedure. Young men wearing bluejean shorts wrapped tefillin on their arms. Young women shuffled anxiously in their seats, keeping their eyes on the rabbi, who quietly indicated when they should rise or sit down.

The worshippers’ casual attire, so appropriate in this tropical country, matched a marked exuberance in the crowd, a palpable excitement.

After the service, they thronged to the kiddush table, eager to greet a visiting delegation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and have some human contact with Jews from the outside world.

The Jewish youth group of Havana, which disbanded in early 1992 when its four former leaders moved to Israel, now has 50 to 60 members, who meet weekly to study Judaism, learn Hebrew, talk about Israel and just socialize with other young Jews.

A women’s group, which began in January with nine women, now musters 65 women weekly. They have instituted a home visitation system to reach out to every elderly or sick Jew in the city. They have collected and catalogued the community’s precious medical supplies.

‘NEVER HAS THE COMMUNITY BEEN SO STRONG’

Sunday religious classes at the Patronato, the main institutional link between Cuban Jewry and Castro’s government, draw 75 students, adults and children, who learn about Jewish history and ritual, study Hebrew and cement their identities. Because of severe gasoline shortages, students and teachers often travel three to four hours to get to class, on their one lone day off from work.

Cuba’s Jewish revival is astounding, according to foreign visitors and community members themselves. One young woman, a leader in Havana’s youth group, almost dissolved in tears when she said, “Never, never has the community been so strong or grown so rapidly.”

The new blossoming of Cuban Jewry is due mainly to a confluence of two events in late 1991.

In October of that year, soon after the Cuban government relaxed restrictions on religious believers joining the Communist Party, the JDC re-entered the country with a stepped-up program of support that community members say has become their lifeline.

In addition to sending in needed books, medicines and food, the JDC sponsors visits by Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, an Argentinean Conservative rabbi who leads a congregation in Guadelajara, Mexico.

Szteinhendler makes four yearly visits to Cuba, bringing in supplies, leading services and visiting Jewish families in their homes. Most of all, however, he provides a willing ear and energetic inspiration for this community isolated from the outside world for more than three decades.

Szteinhendler also brings in two Argentinean “madrichim,” or youth leaders, who teach their Cuban peers everything from Israeli folksongs to Zionist history.

Today, the first group of young Cuban students are able to teach others. One 18-year-old woman, a French major at the University of Havana, now acts as the community’s unofficial cantor, dividing her time between the city’s three synagogues.

“Most of them didn’t know they were Jews when they came to the school (last year),” said Dr. Moses Asis, who has headed the religious school program since its inception in 1985.

REBIRTH AMONG TERRIBLE ECONOMIC CRISIS

This remarkable Jewish rebirth is taking place in the midst of the worst economic crisis Cuba has ever faced. And Cuba’s Jews share in the island’s general economic malaise.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost its major financial backer. Moscow used to supply Cuba with some 3.4 million gallons of oil a year. Last year, Russia sent 780,000 gallons. Nothing at all has arrived this year since the end of January.

Downtown Havana is a ghost city. No traffic noises. No horns honking. Just the silent whoosh of some 1 million Chinese-made bicycles, Castro’s gift to his people when the oil finally ran out.

Nobody can buy gas legally, except for physicians and taxi or bus drivers. People line up for hours by the sides of roads, hoping to cram onto one of the already hopelessly overcrowded buses and somehow get to work. Factories shut early, crippled by fuel shortages and regular power outages that virtually shut down the city for hours each day.

Even more devastating is the food rationing. Each Cuban receives six pounds of rice, a pound of beans, a half-cup of cooking oil and two ounces of impure coffee a month. Fresh meat is unavailable. People are hungry.

For years, the Canadian Jewish Congress — which is not subject to the American embargo on Cuba — has been sending in boxes of matzah, canned fish and powdered milk, in packages clearly marked “religious items.”

The supplies are ostensibly meant for Passover, but are designed to tide the community over for an entire year.

In general, Cuban Jews are circumspect about the future of their community, and about their own choices if the country’s borders are opened. Some say they will leave immediately of Israel. Others say they will stay to build the community at home.

Dr. Jose Miller, a surgeon at a prestigious Havana hospital and president of the Patronato, describes the future of Cuba’s Jews as linked to that of their countrymen.

“From a Jewish standpoint, we’re in a better situation now than 10 years ago,” he said. “If the economic situation changes and people stay in the country, the Jewish community will survive. People are coming back to their roots.”

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