Cuba’s Jewish Community Clings to Life
Photos by Michal Greenboim
Luis Szklarz, 80, has a son and a daughter who both married non-Jews. They’re raising their children Jewish, but many mixed couples are not, which worries Szklarz deeply. Even when they do, many of the kids end up leaving Cuba in search of freedom and opportunity. “In 50 years,” he says, “Judaism in Cuba will be gone.”
Such are the realities of life for the 1,500 or so Jews who live in Cuba. There used to be many more — some 14,000 in Havana alone. But most left in the early 1960s, soon after Fidel Castro rose to power and imposed dictatorial Communist rule. They escaped from a government that outlawed religion and an economy that threatened the livelihood of anyone involved in private business.
Today the community is in much better shape, thanks to international aid groups, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which stepped up in the 1990s when Castro loosened restrictions on religion. They restored the main synagogue and started a Hebrew school, and they continue to send much-needed money and supplies.
But obvious challenges to the survival of the community remain. Intermarriage is a constant threat, as is the economic deprivation and lack of freedom that leads many young Cubans to want to emigrate — including to Israel, where the Jewish Agency helps new immigrants with economic and other support.
Below is an intimate look at the Jewish community in Cuba as it exists today. The people eagerly welcomed us into their world and were eager to share their experiences. But the question remains: Are the Jews of Cuba strong enough to engineer another miracle, or are we looking at the last generation of this Caribbean community?
B’nai B’rith in Cuba: A Historic and Ongoing Mission
In 1995, we sent our first major mission to the island to aid the Jewish community. The B’nai B’rith International-led program evolved out of a smaller program created by a B’nai B’rith lodge in Pittsburgh. Our Cuban Jewish Relief Project continued to send B’nai B’rith members and aid shipments in partnership with the B’nai B’rith Disaster Relief Fund.
Recently, aid went to those affected by a series of hurricanes. This included water purification tablets for Cubans in Havana and surrounding areas. The B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project has also helped retirees at the Mitrani Senior Day Care Center, based in Havana’s Centro Sefaradi synagogue, one of three in Cuba’s capital city, providing medical and educational supplies. B’nai B’rith has helped create a food distribution program through the Maimonides Lodge and provided financial aid to 120 elderly Jews across Cuba. While most of the island’s Jewish population lives in Havana, we also have helped smaller communities in Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos.
Over the years, we have sent many aid missions to Cuba, including four delegations in 2015 alone. The missions also took part in the spiritual and religious activities of the Jewish community. We have donated Torahs, paid for restoration of graves that had fallen into disrepair in a Jewish cemetery and given a meat grinder to the island’s kosher butcher.
The B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem held a Cuba-focused symposium in conjunction with the Cuban Jewish Relief Project in 2015. The event, encompassing the Cuban Jewish community, tourism and humanitarian aid, capped a week of meetings with the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the state of the Cuban Jewish community. The Cuban Jewish Relief Project hosted William Miller, the former vice president of the Jewish Community of Cuba, for this presentation and meetings.
“Despite the evolution of politics in the United States and the ever-changing nature of the U.S. relationship with Cuba, and even the evolution of our own aid and missions to Cuba over time, we remain committed to the continued support of the Jewish community of Cuba,” said Sienna Girgenti, director of the Cuban Jewish Relief Project at B’nai B’rith International. “We will continue to act in whatever ways we can to ensure a bright and vibrant future for Jewish life on the island.”