In Cuba, Jewish Life Survives
by Sam Sokolove
The revolution didn’t quite work out as planned.
That’s the first lesson one learns while visiting Cuba.
Traveling last February with a group of Jewish Federation directors
under the aegis of Jewish Cuba Connection, a nonprofit founded by retired California real estate investor Stanley Falkenstein to engage
American Jewish interest in the Judios of the storied, beleaguered Caribbean island, our purpose was to see how a small, vulnerable Jewish community functions – or doesn’t – under particularly difficult circumstances, and then determine if anything we observe could be applicable to our own communities.
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What’s certain is that life in Cuba is difficult: despite the promises of a socialist paradise, Cuba’s antiquated economy is in near ruins; when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Cuba lost its primary benefactor and life went from hard to harder without ever recovering. Although President Raúl Castro has overseen some sweeping reforms, food shortages are still endemic, the government is the primary provider of low-paying employment for the majority of its citizens, and there is a general feeling that things aren’t moving fast enough. Even El Presidente recently admitted to the “magnitude and complexity" of the country’s problems, which, in a nation with only one sanctioned newspaper – the hardly illuminating Granma -- is a previously unimaginable level of candor.
Perhaps sensing his people’s need for additional sustenance, in 1992 Raúl’s brother Fidel made it permissible to practice a religion and still be a member of the Cuban Communist Party. Not long after, Jews became more willing to express their heritage, and soon the larger Jewish world – with the somewhat grudging permission of the Castro regime – was allowed to conduct religious and humanitarian visits such as ours. What was once viewed as the Hermit Kingdom of the Caribbean began to see its hotels populated with guests from Westchester County and Cherry Hill, the familiar outer-borough brogue of retired dentists and their wives heard at the Melia Habana’s opulent breakfast buffet lines.
What one first encounters upon steeping onto the Jose Marti International Airport parking lot (aside from the expected fifties-era brightly colored Fords and Chevrolets) is the handsome, unsmiling visage of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, accompanied by a revolutionary slogan. From that point on, the same image of Che taken from the iconic Korda photograph is omniscient – on murals, posters, sculpted in steel astride a government building, a constant reminder of the fleeting period when guerilla prowess, socialismo and the cinematic charisma of Fidel and his inner circle captured the world’s attention. Today, the crumbling, stripped-paint Spanish mansions that line Havana’s avenues and poorly stocked ration centers belie Castro’s vision of fifty years prior.
So, along with our passports and letter authorizing our visit under a Code of Federal Regulations dispensation, our group arrived in Havana with more than 3,000 pounds of vitally needed items including medicine, vitamins, clothes for children and adults, school and art supplies, eye glasses, soap, tooth brushes and tooth paste, and first aid kits. Accompanied by a government-approved tour guide who was eager to share an enthusiasm for American pop music and cinema -- and suddenly far more reticent when it came to discussing the country’s troubles (the secret police are everywhere, we were cautioned), we soon accepted that we would have to forge our own opinions of what life is like for the average Habano, the Jews included.
In brief, Jewish Cuba circa 2013 looks something like this: an estimated 1,500 Jews, with three synagogues in Havana and smaller Jewish communities in Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. Of the Jews that live in Havana, 68% are estimated to be Sephardic, the remaining 32% of Polish, Russian and German descent.
Before Fidel Castro’s Revolución Cubana saw an end to the Batista regime in 1959, the Cuban Jewish community was estimated at 15,000 members. Over the next five decades, the majority of the community left for the U.S. (more specifically, Miami) and Israel, with the exodus still continuing. Holiday food shipments have come from the Canadian Jewish Congress since 1963, and since 1991, the Joint Distribution Committee has been on the island to assist the generally impoverished community by providing medication, as well as operating the country’s only Jewish Sunday School, training community members to teach religious studies and lead religious services, and bringing in a visiting rabbi to conduct life cycle events and oversee conversions, a necessary perquisite for Aliyah.
In any economically volatile country, Jews have historically served as an unwilling canary in the coalmine, the first to feel the punishment of discontent. Refreshingly, during our stop to the Centro Hebreo Sefaradi of La Havana, we were informed by William Miller, the former vice president of the Jewish Community of Cuba, that anti-Semitism simply doesn’t exist in Cuba, although a strong “anti-Israelism” persists, a by-product of the government’s anti-Imperialist party line.
Prior to this, he was Executive Director of the San Diego Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish community’s leading human relations organization.
This essay appears in the June/July 2013 issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link. For more information about Jewish life in Cuba and the work of Jewish Cuba Connection, visit www.jewsofcubaorg.com.