Berkeley rabbi says emigration of Cubans to Israel was no secret

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The international media just learned about the secret emigration of 400 Cuban Jews to Israel, but it was no surprise to Berkeley Rabbi Stuart Kelman.

Since 1996, the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom has joined his congregants on three religious missions to Cuba, including the most recent trip last December. He learned about the emigration plan early on.

Kelman criticized news reports, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency article in last week's Jewish Bulletin, for suggesting that the Cuban government, under the direction of President Fidel Castro, has the final say over which Jews are allowed to make aliyah.

"Everyone [in Cuba] knew that you had to go through certain people in the Jewish community to get the visa from the government," Kelman said Monday. "The JTA article made it seem like anyone could apply for a visa directly from the government and be sent."

Jewish leaders in Cuba took charge in this matter because they were extremely sensitive to draining their own community, Kelman asserted.

For example, Kelman said, Cuba's current Jewish leaders took care not to make an all-out, mad dash to Israel before having an opportunity to train Cuba's next generation of Jewish leaders.

"They were very interested in protecting and maintaining some semblance of a Jewish community in Cuba and not dismantling it completely," Kelman said.

The emigration plan went into effect five years ago. About 1,200 Jews still live in Cuba, though 200 reportedly are waiting for permission to make aliyah.

"I'm sure there are even more than 200 on the list," Kelman said. "It's hard to know exactly any of these numbers. Obviously there's no census, and Cuban Jews are a highly intermarried group, in a lot of cases with conversions."

If last week's news reports left the impression that Cuba will soon be free of Jews, Kelman said, "that is clearly not the case."

He said even if all of the Cuban Jews leave their native country — which isn't going to happen — more Jews will pour into Cuba after Castro dies.

"Once Fidel dies and Cuba changes from a completely socialistic model to one of consumerism, I feel that the Jewish community there will increase with a combination of U.S. and Israeli Jews moving there."

American and Israeli Jews, he said, possess the technical skills that Cuba will desperately need in the areas of medicine, high technology, agriculture and economics.

"Even right now there are Israelis already there making inroads in high-tech life and agriculture."

Kelman also discovered in Cuba, by talking to family and friends of the Jews who made aliyah, that many who make it to Israel become disenchanted.

"The Cuban Jewish community tends to identify itself as a religious community and to look to Israel as being the place that can provide them with the best Jewish religious experience," he said. "It tends to be a bit frustrating when they get there, I have heard, because Israel is not the religious bastion they thought it was before they left Cuba."

Then again, some Cuban Jews told Kelman they wanted to leave for purely economic reasons.

"They have a shot at a better life than they do in Cuba right now," he said.

Members of Berkeley's Netivot Shalom make annual trips to Cuba, to do humanitarian work and visit their sister synagogue, Comunidad Hebrea Hatikvah in Santiago de Cuba.

The trips, including an upcoming one at the end of December, are organized by June Safran, who was in Israel this week and unavailable for comment.

Kelman said last week's revelation about the Cuban Jews leaving for Israel shouldn't have been the major news story that it was.

"Clearly the Israelis know about the Cubans there," he said.

"Why the Jewish Agency decided this was the right time to make it public I have no idea. Maybe Fidel wants to show that he's becoming more Westernized."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.