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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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