The Cuban Edge: Remnant Jewish Cuban Community Holds Identity Despite Dwindling Numbers

In 1995, when I first visited Cuba, it was after years working in support of Soviet Jewry. My mission was discovering what had happened to the Cuban Jewish community, after the Cuban Revolution and years of Soviet influence. The question I asked myself was could I help the community not only survive, but thrive after decades during which practicing religion was discouraged and daily life was challenged by dire economic conditions.

In many ways, my effort began after I met Abraham Berezniak in 1996. Abraham had a lively smile and a powerful voice and was the President of the Orthodox Synagogue in Havana. The synagogue had managed to survive because of his leadership and the force of his personality, notwithstanding pressures from the Soviets and Cuban government.

Although cancer forced him to spend most of his time in hospital, his congregation would place a bed next to the Ark that housed the Torah so that he could spend every Friday night service with them. Abraham knew that his congregation needed to see him there.

Years later, his son, Yacob, now a Vice-President of the congregation and a true leader like his father, became the first child to be bar mitzvahed in Cuba after the Soviets left. I attended that bar mitzvah and later returned to Cuba with the video I had made which I gave Yacob so that he could see on film how proud his father was of him.

So much has happened since my first trip to Cuba and my meeting Abraham Berezniak. I have been to Cuba 37 times since that day in 1995 when I first walked down the Malecon, one of the main streets in Havana, trying to figure out how I was going to support and empower the Cuban Jewish Community. My way was to create the Cuban Jewish Relief Project (CJRP). Through the work of many volunteers and the support of B’nai Brith, the CJRP has brought to the community tons of medicine, Judaica, clothes and other necessities of daily life, along with forging strong relationships with leaders and members of the Cuban Jewish community.

Along the way, we have discovered:

* The Cuban Jewish community is small. There are now 1,500 Jews living in Cuba. Before the Revolution in 1959 there were 15,000. Most live in Havana, and the rest in other cities and towns. There are 3 synagogues in Havana and 3 synagogues outside of Havana, one each in Camaguey and Santa Clara and Santiago. In addition, there are small Jewish communities in Guantanamo, Cienfuegos, Sanctu Spiritus that do not have synagogues, but meet in people’s homes.

* Many Cuban Jews fled to the U.S. soon after the Revolution and, in the following years, the small size of the community and the challenges associated with practicing religion lead to a very high intermarriage rate, some say as high as 50 percent. The atmosphere began to change in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the termination of its aid program, which lead to an economic crisis in Cuba known as “the Special Period” (that some commonly call the “Do Without Period”) and some subsequent opening up of the country to tourism to help fill state coffers. In fact, tourism today is considered one of the top money makers for the Cuban government.

* In 1991, the previously godless Cuban Communist Party decreed that Party members could have religious affiliations, and by 1992 it was written into the Constitution that the state was now secular rather than atheist. Change was further spurred on by the visit in 1998 of Pope John Paul II.

* Cuban Jews’ lives revolve around three things: their families, their jobs, and “La Comunidad,” the Jewish community. It is not uncommon today for many Cuban Jewish families to be separated from family members. For some, separation took place decades ago, soon after the Revolution. For others, it was recent event, with family members making or considering moving to Israel. (Israel welcomes Cuban Jewish immigration and Cuba allows a small number to leave each year.)

* The one thing that anchors Cuban Jews is “La Comunidad,” the community. The vitality and vibrancy of the community is obvious as people meet for services and lunch after Sabbath (often their only hot meal for the week), when they bring their children to Sunday school (that now has a roster of 70 children) and 80 adults attend meetings for women, youth and the B’nai Brith Maimonides Lodge, practice folk dancing and work together to take care of those in the community in need, including people with medical conditions, housing that needs major repairs to be livable, and retirees who exist on a $10 monthly stipend for food supplied by B’nai B’rith.

Daily life in Cuba is hard. All Cubans struggle to make ends meet. Like others, Cuban Jews deal each day with rationed food, extremely limited quantities of meat, produce, clothing they cannot afford, and problematic housing. Although many are extremely well educated (Cuba has a 97 percent literacy rate) and work as doctors, engineers, and lawyers, most earn an average monthly salary of only $20.00. A doctor may earn $30.00, which does not go far, even in Cuba, where there are about twice as many doctors per capita as in the U.S. All Cubans get ration cards though which they are allotted a small food allowance: 4 pounds of rice, 4 pounds of beans, 1 pound of sugar, 1 pound of chicken (if it is available), a half pound of coffee, and little or no meat, plus some cooking oil. Bartering and buying necessities on the black market are central for survival. Most of the houses in Cuba are in dire need of repair, with the government having nationalized all of the homes, along with hotels, businesses, land, and other properties. When they go to hospitals, Cubans must bring their own shirts, pillows and food.

Medicines and humanitarian supplies are in short supply in Cuba. The B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project has brought tons of medicine and other items to the island, along with other essential items of daily life. A pharmacy is housed on the top floor of the main synagogue in Havana, Bet Shalom. A doctor and pharmacist work there to fill prescriptions and supply hard-to-find medicines. The medicines are mostly supplied by the Cuban Jewish Relief Project and are available to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Recent reforms have not dramatically changed the quality and rhythm of daily life. Until the past year, Cubans were not allowed in hotels frequented by foreign tourists. Now they are allowed in to eat or meet someone. However, most can not afford to eat in the hotels. Cubans also now are allowed to have cell phones. However, cell phones cost $100, plus $35 in monthly fees, the equivalent to more than 5 months salary. While most Cubans do not have access to the Internet, some do, with many “spreading the word” to their neighbors. The only newspaper available to Cubans is Granma, which is published by the government and costs $1.00, a lot of money for Cubans.

On my recent visit to Cuba in March 2009, I found that the Jewish community was very positive about the Obama Administration’s policy change that has eased restrictions on Cuban Americans to visit their relatives and transfer money to the island. Along with most other Cubans, the Jewish community would very much like the U. S. embargo to end, but do not expect it to be lifted this year.

Stanley Cohen is International Chairman of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project.


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