Jewish Communities in Cuba where B’nai B’rith Directs Humanitarian Aid
Havana • Santa Clara • Cienfuegos • Sancti Spiritus • Camaguey
Santiago • Guantanamo • Caibarien • Campechuela
Havana is the capital, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city/province has 2.1 million inhabitants, and the urban area over 3.5 million, making Havana the largest city in both Cuba and the Caribbean. Havana is the center of the Cuban government and the ministries and headquarters of businesses are based there. Havana also is the island’s cultural center, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, this beauty has faded from many decades of neglect and disrepair.
Havana’s long history mirrors that of Cuba itself, with colonization by Spain and an American occupation prior to the 1958 Revolution lead by Fidel Castro. Following a severe economic downturn after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it the end of the billions of dollars in subsidies the Soviet Union gave the Cuban government, and the US embargo, the Cuban government turned to tourism for financial support, with funds generated by tourism used to rebuild Old Havana with its beautiful architecture of severely run-down colonial, art nouveau, and art deco buildings and rehabilitate some streets and squares.
Most of the 1,500 Jews who live in Cuba today reside in Havana. (The pre-Revolution population was about 15,000.) People freely practice their religion given that in 1991 the Cuban Communist Party decreed that Party members could have religious affiliations, and by 1992 it was written into the Constitution that the state was now secular rather than atheist. In 1994, the first Bar Mitzvah took place in over twelve years and the first formal bris in over five years.
The Jewish community has two cemeteries in Guanabacoa, on the east side of Havana harbor. The Cemeterio de la Comunidad Religiosa Ebrea Adath Israel is for Ashkenazim and dates from 1912. People enter the cemetery by walking under a Spanish colonial gate with a Star of David. To the left of the gate is a small memorial to the Holocaust. Behind the Ashkenazic cemetery is the Cementerio de la Union Hebrea Chevet Ahim for Sephardic Jews which also has a memorial to the Holocaust.
The Jewish community center, the Patronato, is located in Havana and is the heart of Cuban Jewish life on the island and a hub of activity. The center is overseen by Adela Dworin, the President of the Jewish community of Cuba. On any given day, people hold meetings there – including the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, and teenagers practice folk dances for a community festival. The Patronato Sunday school teaches both Hebrew and Yiddish. Both Jews and non-Jews fill their prescriptions at the pharmacy located on the top floor. The pharmacy, which is staffed by Dr. Rosa Behar, has medicine donated largely by CJRP that is hard, if not impossible, to find elsewhere in Cuba.
The main synagogue, Bet Shalom (a conservative synagogue), is located alongside the Patronato. This beautiful building was in disrepair until the mid-1990s, but is now fully functional thanks to contributions from B’nai B’rith, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Federation, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and many individuals. Equally important to Jewish life in Havana and Cuba are Adath Israel (the Orthodox synagogue) and Centro Sefardi (the Sephardic synagogue also affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement in the U.S.).
The Adath Israel synagogue in Old Havana houses the only mikvah in Cuba and has a wooden altar carved with scenes from Jerusalem and historic Havana. The synagogue was completed in 1959 near the city’s port where most Jews lived when they first arrived in Cuba. It is in a neighborhood of crooked and narrow streets and buildings in much need of repair. Religious services are held daily, with only men reading from the torah since it is an Orthodox temple. The energetic and enterprising synagogue treasurer, Yacob Berezniak Hernandez, is continually looking for ways to help synagogue members
Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba
The Centro Sefardi’s long-time leader was Jose Levy Tur, a former merchant marine who taught himself Hebrew and Jewish history. He made the difficult decision to leave Cuba, making aliyah to Israel to join his daughter. The Centro Sefardi now is lead by the dynamic Mayra Levy. El Centro is the last remaining institutional legacy of Sephardic life in Cuba. Weekly services are held in a small room because the main sanctuary has been rented out and is no longer is in use for Jewish prayer and ritual. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, older Sephardic Jews gather to eat together and pass the time chatting after prayers.
Santa Clara is the capital city of the Cuban province of Villa Clara, and is located near the center of the country, a location that has helped ensure its growth. Santa Clara was founded by 175 people on July 15th, 1689. In 2004, the municipality had a population of about 235,000. Santa Clara is central to modern Cuban history because it was the site of the last battle in the Cuban Revolution. In late 1958, two leaders of the revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, defeated the forces of Batista and soon thereafter Batista fled Cuba. At the entrance of Santa Clara is a mausoleum that contains the remains of Che Guevara and sixteen of his fellow combatants who were killed in 1967 in Bolivia.
David Tacher Romano heads the small Santa Clara Jewish community of about40 people. David is a passionate activist and philosopher-leader who works to, not only help the Santa Clara Jewish community, but teach other Cubans about the history of the Jews and the reasons why Israel exists. David has helped recreate the Santa Clara Jewish community, much having been lost after the Revolution, with the synagogue and cemetery turned over to the government because of the dramatic decline of the Jewish population.
Much has changed in the last decade. For a community facing many challenges, without a synagogue or torah, little knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew, and a Jewish cemetery abandoned and lying in ruin, David is helping to build a vibrant community with a synagogue and a torah (donated by the Cuban Jewish Relief Project). Under David’s leadership, by 2000 the cemetery had been fixed and David turned to another challenge: building a Holocaust memorial.
David felt that it was important to preserve in this small Cuban community the memory of the six million Jews who perished. With his leadership, a memorial was created with assistance from the American Jewish community and the U.S. Holocaust Museum donating stones from the Warsaw Ghetto. Visitors to the memorial, which is situated in a corner of the cemetery, pour water on a pine tree David planted with sand from the Negev and water from the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River that he brought back from a visit to Israel.
Members of the Cienfuegos community
Cienfuegos is a sea-side city on the southern coast of Cuba with a population of about 150,000 people, about 155 miles east of Havana. Known as “La Perla del Sur” (Pearl of the South) because of its beautiful bay, it also is the capital of the province of Cienfuegos. Its elegant nineteenth century architecture and wide and straight streets reflect French influence from immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana who settled there in the 19th century, and plantation owners who fled Haiti after the revolution there. In 2005, UNESCO inscribed the urban historic Centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage List.
Square in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Rebecca warmly welcomes visitors to her small second-floor apartment where she tells visitors about how pleased she is to be able to practice her Jewish faith and the challenges the community faces that include the need for medicine and basic necessities of daily life (such as vitamins and underwear), the lack of books about Jewish life and Hebrew and religious texts, and substandard housing.
Cienfuegos, Cuba, congregation profile
Sancti Spiritus is a charming colonial city in central Cuba with a population of about 134, 000 people. It was founded in 1514 and is the capital of Sancti Spiritus province. Sancti Spíritus was one of the original seven Cuban cities founded by the Spanish in 1514 and has charming narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.
Jose Isidoro Barlia Loyarte, a math teacher, is the president of the small Jewish community of about 35 people. Daisy Bernal Mayea, a pharmacist, is his wife who learned Hebrew and studied Jewish history. She now teaches monthly religious services at their home, a pink house with grillwork formed into Stars of David on all its sides.
Camagüey is a city and municipality in central Cuba and the capital of Camaguey Province. It is located in a large agricultural region in the east-central part of the island 300 miles southeast of Havana, and is a center of communications, education and culture. It is the nation’s third largest city, with buildings of beautiful colonial architecture needing restoration, winding and blind alleys and forked streets that lead to squares of different sizes. This design made the city easier to defend from pirates when it was first built in the sixteenth century.
Camagüey is also known as the City of tinajones due to the continuing presence of big clay containers that had been used to store rainwater, but today largely have an aesthetic function. In 2008, the old town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, in September 2008 Camaguey suffered damage as centuries-old buildings were smashed by hurricanes and homes and crops also were destroyed.
The Jewish community thrived in Camaguey by 1927, with a synagogue opened that year which welcomed World War II refugees. However, many left after the war and others after the Revolution. The Camaguey graveyard is the only functioning remnant of pre-Revolutionary Camaguey, with the old synagogue having been turned over to the government after the Revolution and converted into apartments.
The community of about 50 people belong to Comunidad Hebrea Tiferet Israel whose current leader, David Pernas Levy, is a grandson of the community’s first president in the 1920s. A new synagogue was opened in 1998. It is a long and narrow building with tall columns that support wooden rafters, with a small number of religious texts shelved on a bookcase to the side. Since there is no rabbi in Camaguey, as is the case for Cuba as a whole, members of the congregation lead the service.
Camagüey, Cuba, congregation profile
Santiago is one of the most beautiful cities in Cuba, with the sea and mountains nearby, and is located on the eastern side of the island. It is Cuba’s second largest city after Havana and its first capital. Santiago holds a significant place in the history of the Cuban Revolution and is viewed by many as the Cradle of the Revolution. Its architecture reflects many different styles from the baroque to the neoclassical and the city is filled with distinctive and culturally significant buildings.
Santiago also is the source of many of Cuba’s music genres, is the country’s center of Afro-Cuban culture, and holds one of the most spectacular carnivals in the country. French and African words can be heard on the street, reflecting the many French and Haitian families who settled in Santiago in the late 18th century.
Santiago synagogue reopened in 1993.
The Santiago Jewish community consists of 70 people and is headed by the dynamic Eugenia Farin. Members reopened the synagogue in 1993, are very welcoming of visitors, and proud of their heritage and culture. Several community members specialize in Israeli dance which they perform throughout Cuba.
* Jewish Virtual Library – http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Cuba.html
Guantanamo is the capital of the province of the same name with a population of about 180,000 people located on the far east of the island near Santiago. While the city’s name is well known now for the military base the U.S. reserved as part of treaties signed at the end of the Spanish-American War, most Cubans go about their lives unconcerned about the U.S. military presence.
The 40 members of Guantanamo’s Jewish community are lead by David Mizrachi who has built up the community and kept it alive. The Cuban Jewish Relief Project donated a torah to the synagogue which is housed in a home.
Caribarien is located on the north coast of Cuba. It was founded in 1841, and established as a municipality in 1876. About 38,000 people live there. It serves as a shipping point for agricultural commodities. Much of the city has fallen into disrepair due to lack of care. The two sugar mills that used to send their sugar exports through the harbor are now closed and crumbling.
The Caribarien Jewish community is headed by Julio Rodriques Eli. About 25 people meet in a home to conduct services.
This is a draft page. We are looking for more information on this community. If you have photos or a personal experience to share, please contact us.
Campechuela is a municipality and town in Granma Province in southeast Cuba with a population of about 46,000 people. The town of Campachuela was founded in 1869 and became the seat of the municipality in 1912. The local economy is based on agriculture and stock raising.
Campehuela, Cuba, congregation profile
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