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A Cuban Revival (part 1): Jewish Youth Lead the Way in a Long Isolated Community

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When Pablo Verbitzky’s father asked him to appear in a recent play about Anne Frank, the university student eagerly joined the cast of Cuban Jews.

Although he was not familiar with the poignant Holocaust story, Verbitzsky, whose mother is not Jewish, grew up with some sense of his Jewish heritage from his father, an Argentine Jewish theater director who settled in Cuba in 1961.

Now, after several months of studying at the Patronato, the main synagogue here, where there are no full-time rabbis, Verbitzsky is one of several young Jews who regularly lead Shabbat services. The 18-year-old student converted to Judaism in November. So did 49 other Cubans, all children of interfaith couples in which the mother is not Jewish. Under Jewish law, Jewish identity is passed matrilineally.

“Everyone comes to the synagogue to be together,” says a beaming Verbitzsky expressing hope that “the community will grow.”

Verbitzsky’s story is emblematic of the reawakening of Jewish life on this island of 11 million people.

Located barely 90 miles from the United States, Cuba has for more than three decades been virtually cut off from the rest of the Jewish world.

Before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba boasted a vibrant Jewish community of 15,000, with an array of Jewish institutions and Zionist organizations.

In the community’s heyday, there were five Jewish elementary schools, one Jewish high school and five synagogues in the Cuban capital of Havana – the oldest a Sephardi synagogue dating from 1914.

Today, the Cuban Jewish community – numbering some 2,000 – is a mix of Sephardi Jews who came mainly from Turkey in the early part of this century and Ashkenazi Jews who mostly arrived as refugees from Europe before and during World War II.

Support for Castro was nearly universal among the Jews when he overthrew the dictator Fulgenico Batista.

But within two years, after Castro declared Cuba an atheistic state, nationalized businesses and other properties, and introduced communism, some 12,000 Jews joined thousands of other Cubans fleeing the country.

Most of the Jews landed in southern Florida. Others went to Mexico and Venezuela.

“Most Jews thought they cannot raise their children as Jews,” says Adela Dworin, vice president of the Jewish community in Havana. “They feared civil war. Living only 90 miles from the United States, they believed it was impossible for Cuba to survive without the help of the U.S.”

Among the Jews who fled were most of the community’s leaders, all its rabbis and teachers, and many who had lost businesses.

In Miami, the continuing hatred of Castro is just as strong among Jews from Cuba as it is in the general exile community.

“They believe that any Jew who stayed in Cuba was a socialist or communist,” says Raquel Scheck, a Cuban Jew from Miami who recently visited Havana for the first time since leaving in 1961.

That view explains why the remnant community in Cuba remains virtually cut off from Cubans living in the United States.

“Very few Cuban Jews in Miami support Jews in Cuba,” says Dr. Jose Miller, the longstanding president of the Jewish community here.

“Many of them do not approve that other Jews are sending supplies [to Cuba] because ultimately they say it will go to Castro.”

Among the Jews who stayed, only a minority maintained any involvement with Judaism. Most of the community drifted away from religious life, and intermarriage was widespread.

The Patronato could barely muster a minyan, though a number of Jewish families continued to observe Shabbat and major holidays in their own homes, even though candles, bread and other supplies were scarce.

For Passover, Jews relied on packages sent from abroad, particularly from the Canadian Jewish Congress, which had access because Canada maintained ties with Cuba.

Still, Jews here could get kosher meat, a fact many here point to a sign of the absence of anti-Semitism in Cuba.

A visitor to Cuba today finds a long-dormant Jewish community coming back to life with vigor.

The revival of Jewish communal life stems in large part from a 1991 law passed by the Cuban National Assembly that allows Cubans to be members of the Communist Party and to participate in religious associations.

“Without this, the recovery of the Jewish community would not be possible,” Miller says.

For more than 30 years, the daily minyan usually consisted of seven elderly men and three Torah scrolls placed in chairs in a small chapel, Miller says.

Today, 60 percent of the 100 people who come regularly on Shabbat to the main sanctuary are “youngsters,” he says.

The “youngsters have a very strong Jewish feeling,” Miller says. “They have education. Most important, they have Jewish soul.”

When the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began to work with the Cuban Jewish community after the 1991 law was passed, the Patronato sanctuary – not used for more than three decades – was in serious disrepair.

Today, after JDC representatives led a clean-up effort, the large sanctuary is functional, though the many rows of individuals cushioned seats are well-worn and numerous ceiling tiles are missing. Because of broken windows, a hat and sunglasses are in order during Shabbat morning services.

Still, the decorative pulpit and the congregation’s gold-trimmed china set, with dinner plates bearing “Patronato” in gold lettering, are reminiscent of a more glorious period in the history of this grand synagogue that had barely passed its Bar Mitzvah year when the revolution occurred.

But for Alberto Senderey, who initiated the JDC’s Cuba program, the state of the building is not the main concern.

What is more important is “investing heavily in the people,” says Senderey, an Argentine who now heads the JDC office in Paris.

During the past four years, the JDC, which assists Jewish communities worldwide, has brought in rabbis, teachers and youth leaders from Argentina to help Cuban Jews rebuild their community.

In December, an exuberant Jewish community celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Patronato. Leaders of smaller communities across the island – Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba – came to the capital for the festivities.

Joining in the modest celebrations were about 50 leaders of the JDC, constituting the largest American Jewish group to visit Cuba in recent years.

Scheck of Miami grew up actively involved with the Patronato. The decision to visit here was “very painful,” she says, given the deep animosity toward Castro.

But “I wanted to see the community here, to see the youngsters,” she says.

The Patronato, which remains the center of Jewish activity in the Cuban capital, is indeed bustling.

About 150 students – ranging in age from 4 to 60 – attend Sunday school classes that, because of a lack of space, are held in the sanctuary’s balcony.

In the building’s only classroom, 12 young boys are training for their Bar Mitzvahs. Organizations that meet regularly include local affiliates of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith.

In 1995, a communal newsletter called Menorah was launched.

All the teachers today are Cuban, and some of them are university students who completed a seven-month “madrich,” or leadership training, course here.

At Havana’s university, there are about 100 Jewish students, says Liver Maya, 21, who recently completed the leadership course.

Most of the 40 students who participate regularly in programs became involved after a core group went door-to-door, inviting them to youth-oriented events, he says.

Olga Stolick, 21, says even though both of her parents are Jewish and she grew up with an awareness of her heritage, the madrich course taught her “many things about the Jewish people and Jewish life that are helpful.”

Although older members of the community are visibly delighted with the enthusiasm of the younger members, a visitor detects that behind the smiles, there is a sadness about the decades of inactivity.”

As a community “we were almost dead at the end of the 1980s,” says Jewish community head Miller.

“The generation of the 40- to 60-year-olds was the generation that left the community when they were young, at the time of the revolution,” says Jorge Dinier, coordinator of the JDC programs in Cuba.

Havana Jewish community Vice President Dworin says, “We are the lost generation. We lost our youth.”

Dworin, a university student at the time of the revolution, decided in 1960 not to leave Cuba.

“I was born here, and I felt this was the country that opened its doors to my family from Russia and Poland, and I felt I must have loyalty,” she says.

“My father was afraid to leave the country without me because when he left Pinsk, he never saw his brother” and many other relatives who perished in the Holocaust, she says.

As a result, Dworin’s family stayed, and were among the few Jews who remained active with the Patronato.

Most of Dworin’s contemporaries either left Cuba or simply lost touch with the community.

Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, an Argentine who on periodic visits to Cuba in the past four years has helped spark the Jewish revival, credits the dramatic growth of “Jews coming out” simply to “word of mouth.”

The community has nearly tripled in size from the 700 Jews the JDC officials found here in 1991.

Part of the growth came from the outreach to Jewish communities in smaller cities, but much of it was due to children of interfaith couples deciding to convert.

As a result, 60 percent of the community’s 2000 Jews are converts, says Szteinhendler, who was brought to Cuba by the JDC.

In addition to the 50 conversions carried out in late November, 30 circumcisions and 20 weddings were performed by two Argentine rabbis and an Argentine mohel. The three traveled by bus to three cities, carrying with them for the marriage ceremonies the only “chupah,” or wedding canopy, the Patronato owns.

All conversions are done in strict accordance with Jewish law, says Szteinhendler, noting that Israel Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau visited Cuba in 1994 and approved of the conversions.

The conversions marked the end of a process for those seeking to reconnect with the Jewish people, but “most important, it was the beginning of Jewish families,” says Dinier, an Argentine who completed a two-year posting here in December.

“Now, we have a lot of Jewish families.”

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