NEW YORK, Feb. 24 (JTA) — The writing on the wall was clear for Natan Wekselbaum in 1961. The time had come to leave his native Cuba.
Almost 40 years later, the writing on the wall of a synagogue in Havana made his trip back worthwhile.
Wekselbaum, who now lives in New York, traveled back to Cuba recently for the first time in 35 years as part of an American interfaith delegation.
After touring and visiting his old haunts, Wekselbaum made a startling discovery in the synagogue where he used to pray.
“My father was one of the contributors to builders of the shul,” he said, describing how he saw his father’s name on the temple’s founders plaque hanging on the wall. “I didn’t know that.
“It was a life-changing experience.”
Wekselbaum decided to return to Cuba to accompany Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
“My overall impression is that there’s a surge and renewed interest in Jewish identity,” Schneier said, adding that he observed greater synagogue attendance since his last visit in 1994. “But there is still a greater need for support.”
The foundation was founded to provide support to any country where religious freedom is impaired.
Schneier — who organized the foundation’s visit to the country, the group’s third — was accompanied by political figures and heads of the Catholic and Jewish groups in New York.
The Jewish community in Cuba, about 700 people concentrated largely in Havana, benefits from Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s increased acceptance of religious practices. The rabbi also credits the visit of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 with the more relaxed attitude toward religious Cubans.
“Until 1992 if you attended church or synagogue you were a pariah,” Schneier said. “Fear about the manifestation of one’s belief and practice has largely vanished compared to the conditions I found on my first visit to Cuba in 1988,” he said.
Wekselbaum, though, was not so impressed.
“I think when Castro came there was a certain hope that he would work for social problems, but it didn’t happen,” he said.
“After so many years the country has stood still.”
As for the future of the Jewish community in the Communist country, the Cuban native is uncertain.
“The best that can be hoped for is small individual steps of goodwill,” he said.