Sephardic majority, but numbers dwindling

Dr. Mayra Levy is devoted to her profession as a physician. But when offered the chance to teach clinical pharmacology at the University of Havana, thus reducing her hours at work, she jumped at the opportunity.

This gave her more time to devote to Havana’s Sephardic synagogue, for which she serves as president. She’s there afternoons, evenings and weekends.

During a talk and tour of the facility with visitors, Levy held little back in addressing the challenges facing Centro Hebreo Sefardi.

Though 65 percent of the Cuban Jewish community is Sephardic, her synagogue is steadily losing members.

The majority of congregants are 60 or older, and the youth are gravitating toward Havana’s Ashkenazi synagogue and community center.

Havana’s Sephardic community purchased land for its synagogue in the 1950s and built a large sanctuary with 726 seats. But the revolution brought that momentum to a screeching halt: Clergy left the country and, of the Jews that stayed, most, like Levy, had neither the time nor inclination to pursue religious activities.

Instead, they focused on day-to-day survival: raising children, working and struggling to get by on their slim government stipend. (Physicians earn no more than others — the equivalent of $20 to $30 dollars a month.)

But starting in the mid-1990s, Jews have begun trickling back to the fold, Levy said. Life settled down, and children began asking questions about their religious background. “People began to return to their roots.”

Eighty families constituting 320 members belong to the synagogue, she said. “We always have a minyan, and kiddush,” with 50 to 60 people attending Friday night services in the comfortable, carpeted sanctuary.

The synagogue’s adjacent, larger building is closed off; much of the space is rented out as an exercise center (though it’s free for Jews).

Finding operating funds is difficult. “This is a community that was in very bad conditions,” she said. “We are very poor.”

Donations from the outside help immensely. For example, a recent fundraising campaign enabled the synagogue to purchase a minivan to bring older congregants to and from services, and to deliver meals to some families.

Still, showing visitors a downstairs room that is used for a patchwork stitching class, Levy offers some handmade items and pictures for sale. The crafts class is popular among the women, she said, as is a Sephardic cooking class. “They [participants] make a social life in quiet ways,” she said.

Sunday Hebrew school for adults is also popular, she said. “People want to know Hebrew, people want to know Judaism, people want to know about their roots.”

On Friday nights, they show movies for young people — films “about Jewish life or of Jewish artists,” Levy said. And young people come, she said, “but after, they go to the Patronato” — the Ashkenazi Jewish center. Even her own son goes to Patronato.

Her other son, a 33-year-old computer engineer, immigrated to Israel seven years ago.

“Aliyah is a big problem for us,” Levy said. “They want to have a better life, so we have to improve their lives here” to get them to stay.

It’s a daunting task. “We try to get them better conditions — food, work — but in reality they want to go. You can’t put a chain on them.”

Last year alone, 58 Jews left Cuba, Levy said. Most of them were young, but sometimes their parents follow. Going through the Canadian Embassy, “If you show you have a Jewish life, you can leave,” she said.

Levy recalled her own family’s dilemma about staying in Cuba after the communist takeover. “My father said, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t going to last … maybe two years.”

She wagged her finger. “Big mistake.”


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