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PictureSienna Girgenti

Cuba has long been the understandably forbidden fruit of the American tourist. But the long isolated mystery of the Caribbean boasts more than just idyllic streetscapes and an enchanting mix of history, music and nature. For B’nai B’rith, Cuba presents a unique opportunity to fulfill our commitment to helping communities through “Tikkun Olam.”

While Cuba is busy making headlines—particularly for the thawing of relations with the U.S.—what you might not know is that the island maintains a surprising and vibrant Jewish life dating back centuries. At its peak, the community numbered 20,000, but today the passionate Jewish community counts maybe 1,000. 

The reality of life for Cuba’s Jews—and broader Cuban society—is the story failing to garner attention. Welcome to Cuba, home to miles of stunning white sand beaches, premium cigars, oak-aged rum, classic American cars from the 1950s—and where providing fundamental necessities proves a difficult challenge. 


The daughter of Adath Israel community leader Yacob Berezniak poses for a photo.


Jewish motifs adorn the doors to Beth Shalom Synagogue (Havana).

Despite the fact that Cuba meets basic public health and education needs, there remain tremendous strains on resources and a lack of basic necessities including medicine, food and clothing. Even when resources may be available, many Cubans are priced out of the market. Cuba’s dual currency system severely complicates local purchasing power, and the average Cuban salary is the equivalent of only $20 U.S. dollars per month.

As B’nai B’rith International returns from its first mission of 2015, we reflect on the roots and impact of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project (CJRP). Indeed, B’nai B’rith International has a very large hand print in supporting the Cuba-Jewish community with longstanding ties to the island. The B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge even predates the 1959 revolution, having been founded in Havana in 1943.

Nearly 95 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled the revolution. Shortly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government issued a 1992 constitutional amendment that provided for non-discrimination based on religious belief. When B’nai B’rith began the CJRP in the early 1990s the Jewish community was just emerging from decades of struggle to preserve its traditions and culture. With the easing of restriction on religious practice, B’nai B’rith was one of the first humanitarian organizations on the ground to spearhead the bright revival of Jewish life in Cuba.

Since 1995, B’nai B’rith has been providing humanitarian relief and hands-on support to the Cuban-Jewish community, with an emphasis on delivering material aid, Judaica and other necessities while empowering community revitalization efforts. Through our missions, the CJRP affords B’nai B’rith members an opportunity to share in joint religious activities and discussion groups about religious practices and life on the island, all the while enjoying Cuba’s vibrant Caribbean culture. Mission participants have carried down thousands of pounds of religious material contributions to enhance the ability of the Jewish population in Cuba to practice their religion, as well as medicines and other basic necessities. Our first mission of 2015 brought more than 500 pounds of much needed effects.

With aid efforts ranging from the individual level to full community engagement, our legacy of humanitarian support focuses on three primary areas, with an aim toward self-sustainability: 

Preservation: Providing material aid and Judaica to meet the challenges of daily life for the Cuban Jewish population. 

Revitalization: Partnering with communities to support local initiatives. 

Sustainability: Connecting Cuban Jews to the greater Diaspora to strengthen global partnerships and empower future generations. 

This three-pronged approach enables us to focus our aid efforts where they are most needed, and with full cooperation and participation with our partners on the ground. It is precisely through our program’s deep roots in Cuba that we can ensure much-needed aid gets to the right places.

Renewed interest in the Caribbean island nation was spurred by President Barack Obama’s historic announcement of the “normalization” of relations between the United States and Cuba in December 2014.  Many question what lasting changes we can expect following President Obama’s announcement of an opening toward Cuba, particularly for the future of American-Jewish relations with the community on the island. While it is yet to be seen how the changes will unfold, many are quite optimistic. More American Jewish groups will certainly travel to Cuba, and with the easing of travel and commercial restrictions perhaps inject some life into Cuba’s dismal economy.

Despite high optimism, the needs on the ground for the tiny Jewish population remain unchanged. Cuba’s Jewish population still faces challenges on many fronts.  Today, B’nai B’rith continues our tradition of cooperation with the Cuban-Jewish community, contributing vital assistance to ensure that the needs of our brothers and sisters in Cuba are met.

Over the years B’nai B’rith has stitched many threads in the fabric of Jewish life in Cuba. The mystery, intrigue, and even more important sense of “Tikkun Olam” that has drawn American Jews to Cuba for decades has only grown more pronounced, and it is certain our vital work will continue.


December 2014 participants light Chanukah candles with members of the Sancti Spiritus Jewish community, Javaia, during our annual Chanukah Mission.


February 2015 participants mingle with students in the Creating Horizon’s project at the Sephardic Center (Havana).


December 2013 participant Cynthia Tivers of Los Angeles donates a Havdallah candle to David Tacher, leader of the Or Jadash synagogue (Santa Clara).


The Tzedakah box at Adath Israel (Havana).


Participants tour a Jewish facility in the Old City of Havana.


The façade of the Beth Shalom Synagogue (Havana).

Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B’nai B’rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.