On a Saturday morning in early December, about a week before Chanukah, Sephardi Jews here gathered to celebrate what they consider their own miracle.
For the first time in many years, Shabbat services are being held at the Sephardic Jewish Center. The event marks the culmination of two years of negotiations to regain possession of the building.
Unable to maintain the building after the mass exodus of thousands of Cuban Jews after the 1959 revolution, most of the building was rented to cultural organizations.
Sephardi Jews were left with only a small chapel and an office.
“The situation was not easy, but being Jewish we had the courage to go forth in any situation,” says Yosef Levy, president of the Sephardi center.
Unlike the experiences of Jewish communities in European Communist countries, communal property here was not seized by the government, Cuban Jewish leaders point out.
And, they say, the government is supportive of efforts to reclaim property for communal use.
Nonetheless, such efforts have run into difficulties when the current users of the space are reluctant to move or need time to find alternative quarters. The recovery of the Sephardi center occurred room-by-room over two years.
Also last year, in Santiago de Cuba, a five-hour bus ride from Havana, the municipality returned the synagogue to the 100-member Jewish community.
The transfer relieved Rebecca Botton, president of the Santiago Jewish community, of the burden of hosting 50 people in her home every Shabbat for services.
Encouraged by these successful efforts at property restitution, Jewish communities across the country are pursuing claims as well.
Before the revolution, a large building adjacent to the Ashkenazi-dominated Patronato, Havana’s main synagogue, housed a Jewish community center and day school. It was rented to the Cuban Ministry of Culture in the 1960s and, in 1987, was sold.
Now, with the community forced to use the sanctuary’s balcony for renewed Sunday school classes, the Jews here would like to see the synagogue’s annex returned.
“I thought that before I die this part of the building will be recovered by the Jewish community,” says Adela Dworin, vice president of the Jewish community here.
The rush to reclaim property is seen as a necessity as Jewish life is once again flourishing here.
The community, numbering about 2,000 people, has nearly tripled in size since the enactment of a 1991 law allowing Cubans to be members of the ruling Communist Party and participate in religious associations.
As the community rebuilds its institutions, one of the primary services functioning since 1991 is a pharmacy at the Patronato.
Created with the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the pharmacy dispenses medication to Jews weekly. It also cooperates with a Catholic-run pharmacy to provide some medications to non-Jews.
The pharmacy, however, could not stock medicine requiring refrigeration because the community could not afford to purchase a refrigerator. Donations from participants in a recent JDC board mission here will be used to make that purchase.
As the community has expanded, the deepening of Jewish identity has led some Jews to choose aliyah.
After a recent Kabalat Shabbat service at the Patronato, two young Cubans asked an American visitor questions about life in Israel. They were preparing to leave within weeks.
Emigration to Israel happens discreetly, and those who are familiar with Cuban aliyah will not discuss precise numbers.
However, one source estimated that as much as 20 percent of the community probably would leave for Israel in the near future.
Officials of the JDC, which has maintained a presence here during the past four years will not comment on aliyah.
They stress that their work in Cuba, as in other countries around the world, focuses on community development and leadership training aimed at ensuring the future of Cuban Jewry.
Dworin is more forthright. “Leaving is a national problem,” she says, adding that a sizable minority of the general Cuban population wants to emigrate.
Economic hardship is one primary motivation.
Cubans have the highest literacy rate in Latin America, and in the Jewish population, professions such as doctors and engineers are dominant.
“In the 1960s, my father said, `One day you will wait in line for a piece of bread,’” says Dworin. “I did not believe him then, but now I have to do that.”
In a country where even the mayor of the capital city admits that more than half of the buildings are in urgent need of repair, where public transportation is sporadic and overcrowded, where food and household supplies are rationed and where the average monthly salary is about $12, the allure of the revolution’s goals to realize a better society has faded.
Cubans openly joke about it.
“Cuba has the best ice cream in the world and the worst spoon,” is one of the widely used idioms. It refers to Copellio, the island’s sole producer of ice cream, which is available in limited quantities and therefore difficult to eat.
For members of the Jewish community, however, there is one distinct exception to the ration list – access to kosher meat.
In a society where any meat is scarce, this accommodation is arranged by Castro’s government, whose officials allow the country’s one kosher butcher to select the cows to use for the ritual slaughter, according to Jewish communal leaders.
However, because of limited supplies, not every family in the growing community can take advantage of this arrangement. The list of those entitled to kosher meat is limited to only 140 families out of 400 in Havana, says Sephardi Jewish leader Levy.
Still, the kashrut accommodation as well as the openness to property restitution are seen as clear examples of the absence of anti-Semitism in this society.
The butcher, housed in a store front with Jewish stars on its gates, is located in Old Havana amid the decaying buildings where many of the city’s poorest live in severely overcrowded homes. At one time, the area was populated by Jews, most of whom either emigrated or moved to such middle-class neighborhoods as Vedado, where the Patronato stands.
A short walk from the butcher is the country’s oldest synagogue, Chevet Achim.
Founded in 1914 by a Turkish Jewish barkeeper – the bar still stands in the front room at the top of the staircase leading to the synagogue – Chevet Achim was closed last summer because the roof leaks when it rains and the adjoining building is in danger of collapsing.
Because most Jews do not live in this area, the community has all but given up on the idea of restoring the building for daily use as a synagogue.
But community leaders are eager to make sure that Chevet Achim, like other communal properties being reclaimed, is preserved for future generations.
“Inside these walls the Sephardic Jews lived the best years of their lives,” says Levy, expressing the hope that the building would be transformed into a museum of Jewish life in Cuba.
Community leaders, as well as JDC officials, are confident that the majority of Cuban Jews will remain, and they are looking ahead to continue the work of rebuilding and organizing Cuban Jewry. “They started from scratch and are really building up a society in every sense of the word,” says Ambassador Milton Wolf, president of the JDC, who is a former U.S. envoy to Austria.
“This community that was almost dying is alive and strong in its potential,” says Jorge Dinier, who recently completed a two-year posting here as the coordinator of JDC programs in Cuba.
During the past four years, Cuban Jewry has experienced a “change from a culture of survival to a culture of community,” he says.
Plans are under way to reinforce the spirit of community by connecting all Cuba’s Jewish communities via an electronic, information-sharing network.
Such technology, Dinier says, would be used to connect Cuban Jews with other Jewish communities around the world.