Island’s Jews are rebounding from repression

Originally published on July 2, 2000.

HAVANA — According to the Bible, Moses took 40 years to lead the ancient Hebrews out of the desert and into the promised land – about the same amount of time it has taken Cuba’s small Jewish community to get back on its feet under communist rule.

Depleted by departures since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba’s tiny Jewish population of 1,500 is rebuilding itself.

The worship sanctuary at Havana’s main Jewish community center and synagogue, known as the Patronato, has been renovated, largely with American donations. It’s now a warm and inviting place, hardly distinguishable from similar spaces in suburban U.S. synagogues.

The newly repaired sanctuary is a fitting symbol of how far Cuba’s Jewish population has traveled in 41 years under Castro.

“We are OK here,” said Dr. Jose Miller, 74, a retired surgeon who serves as the community’s leader in the absence of a full-time rabbi. “There is no anti-Semitism. We used to be isolated, but things have changed.”

With a membership of 150 families, the Patronato is the largest of Cuba’s five synagogues. It sponsors a religious school for children, a library, activities for senior citizens, and training for young adults to lead worship services.

It also serves food after worship services and doubles as a mini-pharmacy – important features in a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.

As a communist state, Cuba officially opposed all forms of organized religion. Churches and synagogues weren’t allowed to operate religious schools of any kind. Declaring yourself a “believer” was a sure way not to get the best jobs or admitted to the best schools.

All that changed in 1991 with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Job applications and government forms no longer asked questions about religious affiliation. Also, the hard times and grinding shortages drove many people to seek answers in religion – some if only to get a little extra food.

Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba had a robust Jewish population of 15,000. Jews from Turkey and other parts of the Middle East had settled there after World War I. And European Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler before and during World War II found refuge in Cuba.

But when Castro declared the island a communist state and seized private businesses, the vast majority of Jews began leaving for the United States.
(Tags: Cuban Jews, Food)


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