Cuba: Home to a Small but Mighty Jewish Community

Cuba 2 704By Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein

So many people have asked me over the years, “Why do you keep going back to Cuba? What’s so special about that trip? What’s so unique about that place?” Given the U.S. government’s recent announcement about changes in its relations with Cuba, this question is more relevant than ever.

My congregation, Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL, has been taking groups to Cuba for more than a decade. Our founding rabbi and educator emeritus first began this journey, and we are privileged to continue it each year at the end of January.

Over the years, I have come to understand Cuba as a fascinating place, a place of amazing contradictions, a place where we can truly help a struggling Jewish community fight for its very survival in real-time. From my very first trip, I loved the food, the music, and the atmosphere, but it’s the people I found most enthralling.

What amazes me, each time I travel the short 90 miles from Florida, is the resilience this community shows year in and year out. To say it hasn’t been easy is an understatement.

Adela Dworin, the head of Cuba’s Jewish Community Center and Congregation, the Patronato, recalls the time Fidel Castro came to a Hanukkah celebration in 1998. She quips, “I told him he would really like the story of the Maccabees. It was kind of like a revolution.” According to Adela, when Castro spoke to the Jewish community for a very short (two-hour!) speech, he said, “What could move me more than the struggle of a people to preserve its traditions, its religion, and its culture? In some 2,000 years, the Jewish people have preserved your culture, identity, religion, and tradition.”

And yet, today, their numbers are dwindling. Cuba’s Jewish population has shrunk from more than 15,000 to about 1,500, depending on how you count. According to community leaders, no rabbi has lived in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Mayra Levy, president of the Sephardic Center in Havana, struggles each Shabbat to make a minyan. Young leaders we’ve met over the years have given up and moved to Israel as soon as they got the chance.

Still, the faces of the Jewish people we meet reflect their passion to keep Judaism a vital part of their lives. They care deeply about their community. They care about their Jewishness. They care about their past, and they hope for their future. Our short annual visits give them a shot in the arm to know they are not alone. These trips remind us that we can fulfill the Jewish teaching “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh,” all Israel is responsible for each other.

Cuban people, and Cuban Jews in particular, have suffered so much over the last 50 years. Prior to the revolution, Jews prospered there, and I believe this can happen again. The U.S. government’s newly announced changes are definitely encouraging, the beginning of a journey back to what once was. In this current political climate, I know it won’t be easy to get Congress to eliminate the embargo, but at least they are discussing it, and President Obama seems determined to take things as far as his powers will allow. One day can’t erase 54 years, but we welcome any measures that will make daily life easier for all of Cuba.

It’s not easy being Jewish anywhere, but the dwindling community on this tiny little island keeps trying – and as long as they keep trying, we will keep visiting and supporting them.

About an hour outside Havana is Finca Vigia, the home of Ernest Hemmingway. Hemmingway loved Havana, spending his days there drinking daiquiris, fishing, and writing. He is also rumored to have created the famous six-word memoir, an entire story told using just six words. Last year, as we left Havana, I gave the same assignment to my congregants: “Use just six words to describe Cuba.” Here are just a few of the responses:

  • Cuba: Decayed with a Bright Future?
  • Withered Beauty. Failed State. No Answer.
  • Found My 57 Chevy in Havana.
  • Short Flight. Arrived 50 Years Ago.
  • Cuban People: Colorful, Proud, Friendly, Cultural.
  • Time-Warp. Dilapidated. Rebuilding. Vibrant. Alive.
  • Very Happy. Very Sad. Very Cuba.
  • Dark Past. New Vision. Hope Abounds.

Let’s hope so.

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein is Senior Rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois.

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