Cuba’s dwindling Jewish community fighting for its life

J. assignment editor Liz Harris visited Cuba in October with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s travel program. The group met with members of the Cuban Jewish community and toured Jewish sites of interest during a 10-day humanitarian mission to Havana and outlying areas.

For a full lineup of Liz’s Jewish Cuba stories (and for info on how to travel on a JCC trip to Cuba and elsewhere) <CLICK HERE>

By American standards, it was a fairly simple affair.

The bar mitzvah boy — flanked by a confident lay leader and mellifluous young singer — stood at the bimah, fluently reciting prayers and reading his Torah portion. A bouquet of fresh flowers at the base of the podium, along with blue and white ribbons in the center aisle, marked the special occasion.

About 100 worshippers sat in the spacious sanctuary for an hourlong Shabbat service filled with singing, clapping and prayer. Afterward, everyone adjourned to a multipurpose room for a simple repast, saluting the honoree with a small glass of wine and a toast.

Old Havana street scene

It’s not often Havana’s largest synagogue hosts a bar mitzvah. In a country once home to as many as 15,000 Jews, Cuba’s Jewish population is now down to an estimated 1,300.

But with strong-willed leaders and financial assistance largely from Jews in North and South America, Havana’s Jewish community is hanging on.

Though the original Gran Sinagoga Bet Shalom was sold to the government years ago and now houses a theater, the new hub of Havana’s Jewish communal life is right around the corner: a refurbished sanctuary and El Patronato Jewish Community Center.

Located on a quiet, residential street dotted with Cuba’s stereotypical ’50s-era U.S. cars and large homes that have long lost their grandeur, El Patronato also houses the local federation, a small library with full-time librarian (who doubles as the temple’s lay leader), a conference room, pharmacy, multipurpose room and youth center.

In its heyday before the 1959 revolution, the neighborhood was populated by wealthy Jewish merchants, among others, and the synagogue was one of five in Havana.

Now the Conservative Bet Shalom is one of three synagogues — along with the Sephardic Hebrew Center and the small Orthodox Adath Israel — in the city of 2.1 million people.

Nestled in the hills on the outskirts of Havana are two Jewish cemeteries about a quarter of a mile apart. The Ashkenazi cemetery is home to what some say is the oldest Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere; the oldest grave marks a Russian Jewish woman who died in 1901.

The state pays the salaries of cemetery workers and guards, but Cuban Americans give money directly to employees to assure the aging grounds are kept up.

El Patronato also relies on support from Miami expats and outside Jewish agencies, and welcomes visiting Jewish missions throughout the year.

The synagogue and JCC are a vital presence for Havana Jews, and Adela Dworin, the president of the Jewish Cuban Community Council, hopes to keep it that way. Born in Havana to immigrant parents and raised speaking Yiddish (she still retains the inflections), Dworin is often the first person to greet visitors to Havana’s Jewish community. She easily reels off some high-profile guests: Steven Speilberg, Sean Penn and, of course, Fidel Castro.

She’s met with Castro a few times over the years and he has toured the synagogue; she still treasures a 1998 photo of herself with Castro at a synagogue Chanukah party.

“He was very kind to the Jewish community,” she said of Cuba’s former president.

Just last summer, she noted, Castro invited the Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg to Cuba for an interview, during which Castro affirmed Israel’s right to exist and denounced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust.

Dworin and other Jewish leaders insist there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba.

In fact, in a symbolic event just a few weeks ago, President Raul Castro joined the community for a Chanukah celebration Dec. 5 at the synagogue, and was given the honor of lighting the first candle of the menorah.

Cuba is “a living paradox,” said Maritza Corrales, a historian and author of “The Chosen Island: Jews of Cuba.” The country is “religiously tolerant and yet not very interested in religion, which is why Jewish — a minority life — is OK,” she said.

From the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, Jews have found refuge on this small island 90 miles from Florida.

However, that trend reversed with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and establishment of the communist regime. “After 1959, more than 90 percent of Cuban Jews left, all the rabbis left, the kosher butchers …” Morales said.

Though Raul Castro has announced plans to fire half a million government workers and is encouraging some forms of private enterprise to boost the country’s weak economy, Cuba remains a poor country — and those citizens who can leave often do.

But Jewish life continues.

On Sundays, three buses bring children from across the city to religious school at El Patronato, where they celebrate the holidays and learn “a little Hebrew,” tradition and history, Dworin said. “These people will be better Jews than their parents.”

Teens and young adults are drawn to El Patronato’s “youth center,” which boasts three computers, a plasma TV, a Wii, exercise equipment and a pool table — amenities not widely available in Cuba.

There is an active youth organization, and some young people have joined March of the Living trips to Poland or Birthright trips to Israel. Though travel off the island is typically restricted (and on the island, international newspapers are nowhere to be found and access to the Internet is limited), there seems to be a sort of benign benevolence toward Cuban Jews.

William Miller, a younger-generation leader in the Havana Jewish community (his grandfather was the community’s president for many years), expressed cautious optimism.

“We are trying to create a real Jewish community center. For us it is very important. We are trying to attract as many Jewish people as possible.”

The center even operates a free pharmacy — a bedroom-size room filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with everything from aspirin to expensive medications. While Cuba does provide free medical care to its citizens, pharmacies and hospitals often lack many of the drugs taken for granted by those in wealthier countries.

Most of the items in the Jewish pharmacy have been donated by foreigners. The pharmacy in turn sends drugs to Cuban hospitals and gives them to both Jews and non-Jews who come by with a prescription.

Through all these efforts, El Patronato hopes to keep Havana’s Jewish community alive.

It isn’t easy. Young Cuban Jews are making aliyah to Israel (and often from there to the U.S.), and many Jews are marrying out of the faith, mainly because the pool of potential Jewish mates is so small.

On the positive side, Dworin noted that 73 people converted to Judaism in 2007, most of them partners in interfaith marriages.

The diminutive, steely Dworin refuses to give up.

Noting that Bet Shalom’s sanctuary can accommodate a crowd of 300, she said, “We have more chairs than Jews, but someday we will fill them.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.