A Jewish student visits Cuba

It was enough that we were a group of 30 American students and a rabbi in Havana, Cuba that a wave of unease spread through us when a beefy Dutch man approached us and asked if we were Jewish, nodding toward the yarmulke of our trip leader, Rabbi Josh Feigelson. The man’s t-shirt displayed various expletives, so Rabbi Josh responded cautiously: “Yes, in fact, we all are.”

The man paused. And then, in a mix of English and Hebrew: “Chaverim [Friends]! How about a picture, bevakeshah [please]? I have so much ahavah [love] for Israel!” He took the photo and walked away, leaving us astounded.

Our Dutch friend was far from the only person who welcomed us as Jews during our spring break trip to Cuba. Despite decades of anti-religious governmental rule—the Castro regime severely restricted organized religious activities until 1992—Jewish Cubans of all ages, also called “Jubans,” seem to have an exceptional dedication to their religion. From what we saw, much of this dedication was thanks to the support network that Havana’s Jewish community provides its members. In a country as poverty-stricken as Cuba, simple things such as access to good food, medical care and a community center engender loyalty.

The interior of Havana’s La Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba-El Patronato synagogue, the largest Jewish community center in Cuba, is a world away from the dilapidated, filth-ridden streets of the rest of the city. Unlike the rest of Cuba’s crumbling architecture, the Patronato’s décor was modern, with an elaborate entrance marked by a giant arch and gold religious symbols etched in the front door. Remodeled at the end of the 1990s, the sanctuary’s ark is made of dark wood and marble and the seats are velour. The synagogue hosted Cubans of all ages, but many of the 70 worshippers on the Friday night when we attended were young. Dressed in t-shirts and sandals, they filled the front rows of the sanctuary and led a spirited and interactive service, with upbeat tunes and occasional spontaneous dancing.

The Patronato’s remodeled facilities do not reflect the economic standing of its members. Cuba’s Jewish community is one of the poorest in the world. Aid from United States Jewish organizations provides for its modern resources. In addition to the sanctuary, the community hosts a free pharmacy that provides for the entire Jewish community through medical donations from foreign visitors. Aside from public pharmacies, which ration their supplies, this is the only place where Jewish Cubans have access to medicine. The basement of the Patronato houses a weekly religious school of 160 students, many of whom spend their free time at the Patronato’s community center–working out, playing pool, cooking in the kitchen or using the television and three computers—also donations from foreign visitors. Such technology is rare in Cuba, but those who are lucky enough to travel out of the country can bring new appliances with them when they re-enter.

Shabbat dinner during our visit consisted of mashed potatoes, shredded cabbage and chicken—which we helped cook. Shabbat is important to the community because it guarantees a complete meal every Friday night. Dancing followed dinner, mostly featuring traditional Cuban dances to Spanish music, with some Hebrew songs at the end.

Most of Cuba’s Jewish population lives in Havana, with access to these resources, but some live on other parts of the island. Mercedes Behar, an 86-year-old Jewish woman, lives in Cojimar, a poor fishing village outside of Havana. Behar’s grandson, Wilbur, is a young leader in Havana’s Jewish community who we met during our Friday night at the Patronato. Because of the high cost of travel between Havana and Cojimar, Behar spends most of her time alone, and her frail condition makes it impossible for her to leave her fifth-floor apartment. Recently, her roof collapsed while she was in the kitchen—a corner of the apartment with a sink and a stovetop. In addition, she suffers from a mental disability and received electroconvulsive therapy when she was younger. During our visit, she requested that we record a video of her to deliver to the Patronato, a plea to reconnect with Havana’s Jewish community.

“I want to say hello to the congregation,” Behar told the camera. “I am full of happiness because these beautiful visitors have come to see me. And I want to pass on the message that I don’t know exactly what happened, but my kitchen has collapsed and caused me a great pain in my neck and an ache in my heart, and I would be grateful if someone from the congregation came to visit me.”

While her Jewish practice does not involve services, dinner or dancing, she maintained a visible connection to Jewish life. Speaking about the hamsa–or hand-shaped mystical symbol–dangling from her zipper, she mentioned the pride she felt for Wilbur, who brought the charm back after a Birthright trip to Israel. Later, she started humming Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. She knew the entire tune, and even sang some of the words, unable to remember where she had learned it.

Although Jewish Cubans, due to their ethnic identity, have the unique legal opportunity to emigrate from Cuba to Israel, enthusiasm such as Behar’s does not often translate into a desire to make aliyah. Most are too poor to leave, and once in Israel, it is often hard to adapt because communication with family members still in Cuba is difficult. Returning home is rarely an option since travel to the island is costly. In addition, most Jubans do not speak Hebrew, and have trouble finding steady employment. When it was announced during services at the Patronato that David Daniel, a 19-year old, was about to make aliyah, the community treated him like a hero. Young girls sang to him before dinner and members of the congregation cried.

Life is not easy for the Jews who, unlike Daniel, will likely spend the rest of their days in Havana. Cuba is a place that strips its citizens of their human rights and where people are jailed for humanitarian acts—most recently the American contractor Alan Gross, who is serving 15 years for distributing illegal satellite equipment to the Jewish community. But anti-Semitism is not part of the Jubans’ life. Those we met said that they practice their religion free of fear or hate.

Cuba’s communist regime has created a bittersweet lifestyle for its Jews, one filled with extreme poverty and a rich and complicated culture. Harlyn Ramos, a young Cuban, said that although the community is not wealthy, communism provides its own kind of freedom.

“I love living in Cuba because it lets you do what you love,” he said. “If I lived anywhere else I would be competing to make money but here we are all poor, nobody has anything, so we just do what we love and be with the people we love.”
(Tags: Jews, Cuba)


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