The Cuban Jewish Community (or is it Jewish Cuban?)

by Alex Kadis

A man working on a car street-side in Havana, Cuba

The Jewish community in Cuba is one of paradoxes. They have rarely faced outright discrimination, yet fear of persecution led to their current precarious existence. The Cuban Jewish community is in the midst of a blossoming revival, yet years of neglect have left the community too far gone to return to its former glory.

El Patronato Synagogue

Before the Cuban Revolution, there was a thriving Jewish community of 15,000 Jews. Sensing the dangers of civil war, most Cuban Jews did in 1959 what Jews have done for thousands of years – they ran. Those who didn’t flee, faced Soviet-style suppression of their culture and religion. While Jews in Cuba were never treated violently, the government hoped was that over time, they would simply forget what it meant to be Jewish. The synagogues were permitted to stay open – but no member of the Communist party could attend – and in order to survive, one had to be a member of the Communist party.

Notably, the kosher butcher was never closed, and remained the only privately owned butcher for decades. To this day, it provides Cuban Jews an alternative to the normal meat ration of pork. During the Revolution, all religious organizations, including The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), were kicked out.

Then in 1989 the wall came down. In 1992 Cuba changed its constitution from that of a secular country to a non-religious one. By then, the Jewish community had largely ceased to exist and was comprised only of those old enough to remember life before the Revolution. In the last two decades JDC staff, mostly from Argentina, have helped rebuild what was lost. Today the younger generation is the Jewish community – leading religious observance and providing services not only for the older generation, but to all Jews.

Visiting Jewish homes in Havana, Cuba

Amidst the many wonderful things the JDC accomplishes every year, they provide trips to places like Cuba, that are so close, but so difficult to reach. Our recent journey was geared towards a diverse group of young Jewish professionals from around the United States. We were fortunate to spend much of our time with Cuban Jews around our age. Many of our meals were with them and they showed us around the clubs at night.

The first evening, I sat at a table with Paul, a teenage drummer from Havana. Paul told us about his life, his dreams and desires. He plays in three bands and is quite the talented drummer. Paul has traveled to Venezuela with his band to play for Chavez. (Although he’s not convinced that Chavez was actually in the audience). More than anything else, Paul said that he and his friends want information. While medicine and other basic supplies are badly needed by the community, for the most part he feels they take can take care of each other. What they don’t have easy access to is information. The Cuban government controls social media along with many forms of news and entertainment. Thus young people share any media they can get their hands on, be it the latest movie, TV show or book… helping to spread the information as quickly as possible.

A "new" car sits on a Havana street

The Jewish community in Cuba is both struggling and thriving. There are only 1,500 Jews left in Cuba (down from 15,000 before the Revolution), and that number continues to dwindle. The rate of intermarriage is extremely high; there may not be enough Jews to sustain a community. Perhaps two families keep kosher in all of Cuba as there aren’t sufficient resources for kosher food to be practical. Despite this, the young adults love their community-run events like their Friday night services – leading heartfelt prayers with crystal clear voices. Even a few years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. I have seen firsthand how hard they have worked to make their Jewish life possible.

Visiting a home in Havana

There’s a lovely Argentinean couple, Joi and Ariel, that work for the JDC, helping to lead the Jewish community. There aren’t any rabbis, as none are allowed to live in Cuba. Over the last decade, a series of couples from South America have helped young Jews to learn about what it means to be Jewish. But how do you teach Judaism to people who have no background? What does it mean to be a Cuban Jew? Or is it Jewish Cuban? The challenge of identity surrounds the Jewish community in Cuba, and it’s an issue not easily understood.

Many Cubans said that they saw themselves first as Cubans, then as Jews. Despite the Cuban government’s previous disdain for all things religious, the Jews in Cuba have never faced discrimination on the same scale as they have elsewhere in the world. For instance: they are very proud that they do not have, nor do they need, guards outside of any of their Jewish institutions. The synagogues are left unprotected because they don’t need protection. The thought of a Cuban breaking in and stealing or hurting the Jewish community is unthinkable.

Meeting Adela Dworin, President of the Cuban Jewish Community

Despite a cohesive community, or perhaps because of it, the young up-and-coming Jewish leaders are restless. Some of them dream of a better life in Israel, and most of them have already visited through Birthright trips.

Havana’s Holocaust memorial

Before leaving Cuba, we paid our respects to those who were lost in the Holocaust. Havana’s Holocaust memorial was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. One cannot help but marvel at the connection that all Jews have, no matter how isolated the community. The Cuban Jewish people, despite the challenges they have faced over the decades, have managed to revitalize their community. It is up to us, the international Jewish community, to ensure that Judiasm not only survives in Cuba, but thrives.

Alex Kadis recently finished a transformative year volunteering in Israel with the OTZMA program and PresenTense. You can read more of his writing on his blog, The Follies of Zest, and on Twitter.