An Overview of Jewish History in Cuba
The Jews of Cuba offer one of the most interesting studies in world Jewry. The Jews have been integral to Cuba's daily life for centuries.
The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus occurred, in part, to the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to convert or leave Spain. Many of these Jews joined Columbus' fleet. One was Columbus' translator, Luis de Torres, who is believed to be the first Jewish decedent in Cuba. Cuba's fertile soil allowed the early settlers to begin development of the sugar and tobacco industries.
After the Spanish-American War, when Spain and the United States came to peace, the America's influence in Cuba increased, and more Jews immigrated to the island. At this time, the first synagogue opened. A Jewish root was firmly planted in Cuba.
The next migration of Jews to Cuba occurred in the years following World War I. Many Jews from Turkey and Europe were suffering from anti-Semitism, social & political upheaval, as well as growing Nazi persecution. Cuba provided a fertile and welcome refuge. Many Jews opened factories and stores, and were primarily involved in the apparel industries. Some became doctors, lawyers and bankers. Some held high government positions. Everyone prospered. The Jewish population grew to approximately 25,000 people by 1945.
After WWII, many Jews returned to their European homeland or emigrated to the United States. Cuban Jews prospered in the 1950s, which gave way to the revolution in 1959. All Cubans were dramatically impacted when the government nationalized private businesses and other properties. .
The arrival of the Soviets led to an atheist state. Free enterprise and religious worship were discouraged. 90% of Cuba's Jews left the island. Although synagogues stayed open, Judaism declined.
SYNAGOGUES IN CUBA.
In Havana, there are three synagogues. The largest is the Temple Beth Shalom, built in 1957 before the revolution. At that time, there were 15,000 Cuban Jews --- ten times the present Jewish population. By the 1990s, the synagogue had deteriorated due to a lack of funds. Windows were broken. Birds were nesting above the pulpit. Today, this 300-seat synagogue has been restored with the help of friends in the United States, Canada and other countries. It reopened in May of 2000.
Connected to the Beth Shalom is the Patronato, which functions as Cuba's Jewish community center. The Patronato features a full library, with an impressive collection of Jewish books, including many texts in Yiddish. The library is a popular source of reference and education for Jews throughout the island. Dr. Jose Miller is the president of the Jewish community, and Adela Dworin is the vice-president.
The Patronato houses a variety of facilities. These include a social hall used by the entire community for holidays, celebrations, community meetings and anything else they find relevant to their daily lives. On Saturdays, a meal is served to the congregation. The food is provided by friends across the globe, including B'nai B'rith, JDC, and the Canadian Jewish Congress. These services are not only spiritually important, but, with food and supplies scarce, they offer many congregants their only full meal of the week.
The Patronato complex also boasts a pharmacy, where the B'nai B'rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project and other supporters try keep the shelves well stocked with antibiotics, vitamins, prescription & over-the-counter medications, as well as medical supplies. Government pharmacies are usually sparse. Dr. Rosa Behar administers the pharmacy and distributes these important supplies to the Jewish communities throughout the island. In addition, the Patronato distributes other necessities such as clothing, powdered milk, food and religious items received from humanitarian efforts.
ADATH ISRAEL & SEPHARDIC SYNAGOGUES
The second synagogue in Havana is the Adath Israel, an Orthodox congregation. They are also supplied by the Patronato, and helped by internationally by Chabad and other organizations. The Adath Israel synagogue offers morning and evening services, a Mikvah and a kosher butcher shop. The butcher shop nearby has a limited supply of meat for those who are fortunate to have a special ration. This synagogue in the old city is also trying to renovate its facility, but it is a slow process because of a lack of funds.
Lastly, is the Sephardic synagogue. It is located in the Vadado section of Havana, not far from the Patronato. They have an active congregation that also interacts with the rest of the Jewish community.
None of the Cuban synagogues have a permanent rabbi. Periodically, rabbis visit from other countries (especially South America.) These visits are sponsored by various organizations. Sometimes, a rabbi will come to the island on his own to help congregations with religious needs that require a rabbi (such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs).
CUBAN JEWS TODAY
The Jewish community includes an inspiring group of young people who have devoted themselves to performing religious services. Some are as young as fourteen years old. Young women are also proficient in Hebrew and are able to conduct weekly services. Friday evening is usually set aside for young people, with Saturday devoted to older members of the congregation. The community includes some individuals who joined through conversion, which is only permitted when the person has a near relative who is Jewish.
When the Soviets left in 1990, the Cuban government declared that communism and religion could coexist. The Jewish community is now enjoying a revival. The disarray of the Soviet era has given way to a true sense of cohesiveness today. They are Jews that the rest of the world can look to with pride.
Although there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba, daily life is very hard for all Cubans. The average person earns between $15 and $35 per month. Food is rationed. Not many quality items are available in pesos, and must be purchased with U.S. dollars (something not everyone has access to.) A doctor earning $35 per month may hope to supplement his income as a cab driver or a waiter, who can earn $10 a day in tips.
Nevertheless, the Jewish World can be proud of their support to the Jews of Cuba --- support that will continue to be needed in the near future.
Written By Stanley G. Cohen, International Chairman
Cuban Jewish Relief Project, B'nai B'rith Center For Public Policy
For more information on ways to get involved in the Cuban Jewish Relief Project or for mission registration, please contact:
B'nai B'rith Cuban
Jewish Relief Project
B'nai B'rith International
1120 20th St NW
Suite 300 N
Washington, DC 20036