Forced to leave homes, Cuban Jews thrive in Miami
Special to The Jewish Star Times
Cuban Jews began arriving in Miami in 1960 along with the mass exodus of Cubans seeking political asylum in the United States after Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover. Jews had emigrated to Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s when quotas to the U.S. were cut sharply. By the coming of the Castro regime in 1959, they comprised a respectable percentage of Cuba’s business community. As such, they were among the first victims of the revolution.
At first they came to Miami to wait things out, hoping that American intervention would put an end to what they considered unthinkable, a communist regime 90 miles away from the U.S. But after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, they had no choice but to start the painstaking task of rebuilding their lives and their community. Today, there are about 2,500 Cuban Jewish households in Miami-Dade County, according to an estimate by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
Unlike South American Jews, who later emigrated with part of most of their assets, Cuban Jews, like the rest of the country’s bourgeois, were taken by surprise, many having put little money out of the country. The beginning was hard and slow. Many opened small shops in downtown Miami, trying to recreate the style of commerce they knew on the island where Jews had shops in certain streets of old Havana, mainly selling textiles and dry goods. But business in downtown Miami was slow and only the strong survived. Some people emigrated to Puerto Rico or New York. Others opened manufacturing plants and slowly, as more Cubans moved to Miami, they started to feed off their own markets until a new economy began to take shape.
Bernardo Benes was one of the first Cuban Jews to become a banker in Miami when he joined Washington Federal Savings and Loan in Miami Beach in the early 1960s.
“Among the refugees was a strong professional class, many of them bankers, and the American banks took advantage of this new pool,” Benes recalled. “They in turn started bringing in clients that they knew from home and the banking character of Miami changed drastically.”
Later, Benes and Carlos Dascal, another Cuban Jew, started Continental Bank, the first Cuban-owned bank in the U.S.
Socially the Cuban Jews felt a tremendous need to affiliate. Their life in Cuba had been communal. Jews had rarely wandered outside of the community’s social circle. Benes said that he and two friends approached a YMHA in Miami Beach and asked to be allowed to use a room twice a week for social gatherings. “They agreed, with the condition that we pay their monthly electric bill,” Benes said. “We turned around. None of us had enough money to foot the bill.”
In 1961, the Cuban Hebrew Circle was founded. Now called Temple Beth Shmuel, Cuban Hebrew Congregation, it is at 1701 Lenox Ave., Miami Beach. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were about 900 families in the congregation. Now there are only about 650 as many families move away from Miami Beach, which had been where most Cuban Jews used to live.
One existing synagogue that welcomed Cuban Jews right from the start was Temple Menorah in Miami Beach. Rabbi Meyer Abramowitz, who was the spiritual leader at the time, offered the refugees free synagogue memberships until they could become settled in their new home. Today, Cuban Jews are among the mainstays of the synagogue. The president, Rosita Zelcer, is a Cuban Jew.
The current rabbi, Eliot Pearlson, feels very close ties to the community. “I understand why, contrary to other immigrants, the Cuban Jewish community has maintained the language, the music and the cuisine of their country of birth,” he said. “My father arrived from Poland at the age of 17 and the first thing he did was change his name and forget the Polish language. The Poles were anti-Semitic, their interaction with the Jewish community was negative and all he wanted to do was to forget that part of his life.
“In Cuba, however, from what I understand there was very little anti-Semitism and therefore Jews wanted to preserve the positive aspects of that culture. The tolerant environment of Cuba, in fact, enabled Jews to maintain a positive Jewish identity. It is no surprise that the Cuban Jewish community has now reached the highest levels of leadership in Miami.”
Many Cuban Jews have prospered beyond their dreams in Miami. But for many, their change of status has not brought a change of attitude. Rafael Kravec is founder and CEO of French Fragrances, a publicly traded company. In 1960, he came penniless to Miami when the wholesaler he worked for in Havana was taken over by the government. “For the first eight months, I sold flowers for an importer, worked at Burdine’s and even joined a trade mission to the Caribbean as a translator,” he recalled. He said that even though he loves this country and has prospered here he still does not fell 100 percent American. “I’m still a Cuban and have very strong ties with Israel,” he said. “I live Cuba and Israel every day.”
Some were affected by Castro’s takeover at a very early age. Marcos Kerbel emigrated to Miami at the age of 12 as part of the Pedro Pan airlift. He lived in foster homes in California until his parents could join him in Miami years later. He spent 22 years heading the Miami office of the Israel Discount Bank and believes that he enjoys the best of three worlds, being Cuban, American and Jewish. Kerbel said that at midnight every New Year’s Eve at the annual party at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation, everyone sings three national anthems — from Cuba, Israel and the United States.
According to Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuban Jew who is a professor of Cuban history at the University of Miami, most Cuban Jews are apolitical and have not gotten involved in Cuban exile politics. The one notable exception was Benes, who during the 1970s was extremely active. At one point during the Carter administration, he was among a group of Cuban exiles who took part in a dialogue with Fidel Castro. The talks resulted in the freedom of many Cuban political prisoners. However, Benes was vilified by many Cuban exiles for negotiating with Castro and he largely withdrew from exile politics.
Suchlicki, who is the author of a widely used history of Cuba, said that “Cuban Jews are a generation in transition with a diluted identity. We identify with three countries: Cuba, the U.S. and Israel.” He said Cuban Jews have very little political clout in Miami, but some economic clout. A number of Cuban Jews also have become prominent in the organized Jewish community here. “Four years ago, we inaugurated Isaac Zelcer as the first Cuban president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation,” he said. Zelcer is another local success story. In 1960, he left Cuba with his young family and went to New York, where he worked in a tie factory until he became president. In 1980, he moved to Miami and started Isaco Ties, which is now one of the largest accessories companies in the U.S.
The Zelcers were so dedicated to business that when the family would travel to Lake Como in Italy to develop the line, the children, rather than going to the beach, would visit the mills with their parents. “That’s how they learned the business,” Zelcer said.
George Feldenkreis came to Miami in 1961 “with a pregnant wife, a child in my arms and $700 in my pocket. Today as CEO of Supreme International, Feldenkreis is at the helm of one of the major sportswear manufacturing firms in the country, with the recent acquisition of Perry Ellis International.
Feldenkreis has long been active in the Jewish community, from working for the Zionist Union in Havana to serving as president of the Cuban Division of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. He said that some day, when he has the time, he would like to be president of the federation.
A number of members of the Cuban Jewish community have been major charitable givers. Among the most prominent is Isaac Olemberg. The ballrooms of both the Cuban Hebrew Congregation and Temple Menorah bear his name.
Most Cuban Jews are of the European tradition, and both of these synagogues are Ashkenazi. The principal Sephardic Cuban synagogue is Torat Moshe, 1200 Normandy Dr., Miami Beach. At Torat Moshe, the Orthodox tradition is observed and women and men sit separately.
Sabeto Garzi is president of Torat Moshe, where Sephardic Week is observed every February with a cultural and musical program including performances in Ladino, the Sephardic counterpart to Yiddish. Salomon Garazi is also past president of FESELA (The Sephardic Federation of Latin America).
He and Alberto Barrocas, who is active in the Latin Auxiliary of the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged, are among the most prominent and involved people in the Sephardic Cuban community here. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities are somewhat less polarized in Miami than they had been in Cuba, where both had their own community centers.