Jews in Cuba Experience Religious Renaissance
HAVANA – Jose Isidoro Barlia was once known as the Jew of Sancti Spiritus.
Thought to be the only Jew in a city of 100,000 in the geographic center of Cuba, Barlia held fast to his religion despite having no others in town with whom to celebrate holidays or share a Sabbath meal. So for 20 years, Barlia, his wife and children boarded a hot bus and traveled four hours to observe the Sabbath with a Jewish family in a town 90 miles away, then traveled four hours to return home.
When Barlia’s only son was born 15 years ago, there was no way to have a bris, the Jewish ritual circumcision. There was no mohel left in Cuba who could perform such a ceremony.
“It was not even an option,” Barlia said through a translator this month.
Today, Barlia and his family are no longer alone. There are 41 Jews in Sancti Spiritus who hold services for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and whose children are studying Hebrew and learning Israeli folk dances.
Such a revival is taking place throughout Cuba as the country’s small Jewish population is returning to practice a religion that some knew only through stories told by their grandparents. During the past decade, strictures against religion have eased, allowing Cubans to come back to churches and synagogues without fear of reprisal.
With no rabbis remaining in Cuba, the Jews who hung on during the three decades that the country was officially atheist are taking it upon themselves to enlarge and enrich their community by teaching religious rituals that start at the most fundamental level.
“We have lost a generation in Cuba,” said Dr. Alberto Mechulam Cohen, director of the Hebrew school at Havana’s Beth Shalom synagogue, which is known as the Patronato. “The kids used to say this is a Jewish church. They didn’t even know the word for synagogue.”
The Patronato’s sanctuary was once in such disrepair that birds flew in through broken windows and holes in the roof. Today, it looks like a suburban American synagogue, its pulpit accented with decorative wood and marble.
Cuba’s Jewish renaissance has been accomplished with help from the Jewish community outside the island nation, which has sent money, visiting rabbis, and teachers. Jews in the United States have taken up the cause in recent years, and every month or so, an American group will visit Havana’s synagogues, bringing donations and suitcases full of supplies. Such visits, including one this month by Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, are considered religious missions and are one of the few legal ways to travel to Cuba.
President Bush last week said he would not lift travel constraints for the American public nor end the 40-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba unless Fidel Castro took significant steps toward democracy and economic freedom. He said the government would facilitate humanitarian assistance to Cuba through religious and other nongovernmental groups.
The first Jews were said to arrive in Cuba in 1492 with Christopher Columbus. The largest wave of migration came at the beginning of the 1900s, when Sephardic Jews, or those of Spanish heritage, came from Turkey, followed by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe.
The experience of Havana resident Adela Dworin’s family was typical of the Jewish migration. When her father wanted to leave the then-Polish city of Pinsk in the 1920s, he could not afford a visa for the United States. Instead, in 1924, he headed for Cuba.
“They saw a small island, 90 miles from the U.S., so they came here,” Dworin said recently, explaining the island’s Jewish heritage to the group from B’nai Jeshurun. “They thought they would stay here for a short time and they would be able to get to the U.S. It didn’t happen.”
The Jewish community grew so large that, during the 1950s, there were five synagogues in Havana and Jewish elementary schools of every political bent, from Zionist to secular. There was a Jewish newspaper and some 40 social organizations catering to adults, children and various professions.
By the 1959 revolution, there were about 15,000 Jews in Cuba.
After Castro took power, businesses were nationalized, and Dworin’s father lost his clothing factory. He wanted to join the exodus to America, but Dworin, who was then studying law, wanted to stay and see what the revolution would bring. Her father decided that, if she stayed, the whole family would, too.
Dworin said she made a promise to her father that she would remain active in the Jewish community. During the next 30 years, she watched her synagogue crumble. Most of the Jews who remained in Cuba stopped coming to worship, and the building fell into disrepair.
Although there was never overt religious persecution, there were messages from the government that communism and religion did not mesh. Entrance forms to universities, and even some job applications, contained questions on whether or not the applicant believed in God.
A small group of elderly Cubans, who had nothing to lose, still came to services at the Patronato and at the city’s Orthodox and Sephardic synagogues.
Dworin said large crowds showed up only around Passover, when holiday foods would arrive from Canada.
“I was angry with them because I only saw them once a year,” she said. “I used to call them gastronomic Jews.”
Attendance was so low that it was often impossible to gather a minyan, the group of 10 men required for prayers.
“We had seven men, three Torahs,” Dworin said. “It’s a Cuban minyan.”
Jose Levy, the leader of Cuba’s Sephardic community, said people felt isolated from Judaism.
“They sometimes thought, ‘OK, nobody is going to help us, nobody will ever help us,’ ” Levy said.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought profound changes to Cuba, including an end to most of the country’s trade. It also brought a new openness toward religion and, in 1992, the Communist Congress of Cuba declared that Cubans could be religious without sacrificing membership in the Communist Party.
That year, Dr. Jose Miller, the head of Patronato, decided to ask for assistance in reviving the ailing Jewish community. He turned to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a charitable agency based in Manhattan that makes restoring and strengthening Jewish community life one of its missions.
One of the group’s first steps was to travel throughout Cuba and determine how many Jews remained, and where. Most Jews still living in the country had married outside the religion, leaving few who were born of Jewish mothers and considered by traditional Jewish law to be Jewish.
Alberto Behar was such a Jew. Behar’s father was Jewish but, because of the revolution, did not participate in Jewish life. When the elder Behar died in 1986, a leader of Havana’s Orthodox community told his son he had to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
“I didn’t know to say the Kaddish,” said Behar, a 35-year-old computer programmer who lives in Havana.
Behar decided to learn about the religion of his grandparents, Turkish immigrants to Cuba. In 1996, he converted to Judaism and underwent a circumcision, from which he said it took him three months to recover. The next year, he celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Behar learned to read the Torah and now chants the Hebrew from the pulpit of the Patronato in a strong voice.
Such dedication to Judaism is mirrored in Maria Eugenia Esquenazi and her husband, Efrain Niebla Fuentes, who wake up at 3 a.m. on Saturdays to catch a 4:30 a.m. bus from their town outside Havana to reach the Patronato in time for Sabbath services. Esquenazi has Jewish roots on her father’s side and hopes to convert and move to Israel.
For the past seven years, Cuba has quietly allowed Jews to immigrate to Israel, although the two countries have no formal diplomatic relations. About 500 people have done so, Levy said.
Although the Cuban government is pro-Palestinian, Jews insist there is no anti-Semitism. A kosher butcher shop has been allowed to operate with a government allotment of meat. Castro even visited the Patronato several years ago at Dworin’s invitation. He stunned those gathered in the synagogue’s social hall for a Hanukkah celebration.
The Patronato’s sanctuary was still in disrepair when the Cuban leader made his visit. A renovation was completed two years ago, thanks mostly to donations Dworin coaxed from former schoolmates now living in Miami.
The synagogue still has no money to support a rabbi. The JDC sends a rabbi several times a year for special occasions such as conversions. The agency is also funding the two-year stay of a young Argentine couple, Nestor Szewach and Mara Steiner, who help lead services and coordinate countrywide activities such as camps for children and senior citizens.
At Havana’s Orthodox synagogue, Adath Israel, an older Cuban man, led a recent morning service, using the Hebrew he had learned as a child. The services are held in a basement sanctuary because the main sanctuary upstairs needs a new roof, air conditioning and new carpeting.
“It will take a lot of money,” said Luis Rousso, the administrator of the congregation that operates the kosher butcher shop and runs Cuba’s only mikvah, or ritual bath.
The city’s second synagogue, founded in 1914 for the growing wave of Sephardic Jews to reach the island, was closed eight years ago. Disintegrating prayer books now sit in glass cabinets, and wooden seats are heaped in piles, broken and dust-covered. A French architectural firm has expressed interest in renovating the building and turning it into a museum. Levy said he was awaiting the permission of the Cuban government to go forward with the project. Services for the community are now held in a more modern building.
The Cuban Jewish population, which was about 800 in 1980, is now thought to be more than double that at 1,700. In addition to Havana, there are eight Jewish communities in the provinces, most of which have no synagogue and hold services in people’s homes.
Marcelo Bronstein, a rabbi from B’nai Jeshurun who led the synagogue’s recent trip, said seeing the resurgence of the Jewish community was a testament to the resilience of people who, by all logic, could have disappeared.
“People basically assimilated,” Bronstein said. “There was no reason for them to be here now. There was no reason for them to have Shabbat. There was no reason for them to still be present.”
In Sancti Spiritus seven years ago, Jose Barlia, at the prompting of the JDC, began to find people in his city who had Jewish roots. Some had no idea of their heritage until he told them, and some were so assimilated that being Jewish had no meaning.
“It was not easy,” said Barlia, a 50-year-old math professor at a pre-college program.
He eventually found a dozen families and, on June 9, six members of the community will begin the formal process to convert to Judaism, including Barlia’s son, Jose, whose mother is not Jewish. The teen-ager will eventually have the circumcision that should have been done at birth.
To Barlia, his joy comes in knowing that his 2-year-old granddaughter, Claudia, will not have to struggle to be Jewish. She already dances along when the older children do Israeli folk dances.
It was something, Barlia told Bronstein, that he did not imagine would be possible.
“Suddenly, this granddaughter would have a community and she would learn Hebrew and dances and things like that,” Bronstein said. “That, for him, is a miracle.”