West Palm Jews visit to aid brethren in Cuba
When Franklin Silbey and other members of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach recently visited Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Cuba, they noticed two details right away.
”No security, and no graffiti,” Silbey said. “Everywhere else in the world you go, guards are outside the synagogues. Automatic weapons, in some cases metal detectors, and you get graffiti in the cemeteries. In Cuba, you don’t see any of that.”
That might be explained by tight state security, but the Jewish visitors said they also felt no prejudice on the part of Cubans during their week on the island in June. Silbey said they may have found one of the few countries in the world devoid of anti-Semitism.
”Of course, there are only something like 1,500 or 1,600 Jews out of 11 million people,” Silbey said. “A very, very small percentage of the population, but still it was unusual.”
Pam Weiner, another member of the group, put it this way: “I’m not sure most Cubans know what a Jew is.”
The 27-person delegation visited Cuba to bring aid — medicine, clothing, school supplies — to the remaining Jewish communities, what is left of a once larger, thriving Jewish enclave.
At one time, Cuba was home to about 20,000 Jews. But after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, his government eventually banned all public exercise of religion and prohibited anyone observant from occupying positions of power in the governing Cuban Communist Party.
About 90 percent of the Jews left Cuba, and what remains is what Jews call a “remnant community.”
Rabbi Richard Chapin said he had recently been reading about reduced communities of Jews from Eastern Europe who had barely survived the Holocaust.
”This was no Holocaust, what happened in Cuba, but in many ways it is also a vanished world,” he said.
Weiner said she also saw signs of a more glorious past. She was particularly impressed with the library at a Havana synagogue, a collection of books that reflected a time when the Jewish community was much bigger and culturally rich.
”There were all these very old texts in Spanish and Hebrew, and there were a lot of them,” she said. “It was fascinating.”
Today, there are about a half dozen Jewish congregations in all of Cuba. More than half of the Jews live in Havana, where three synagogues operate — one Orthodox and two Reform. Of the latter two, one is Ashkenazic, one Sephardic.
Not one rabbi or cantor lives in Cuba. Occasionally those officials are brought in from other Latin countries to minister to the Cuban Jews. A rabbi and cantor from Argentina were in Havana at the same time as the Temple Israel group, said Dr. Myles Cooley, another member of the delegation.
Several years ago, a ceremony of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah was held in Havana for about 15 young Jews from all over Cuba. A foreign rabbi presided.
In the south central Cuban city of Cienfuegos, the Temple Israel contingent visited a house that serves as a synagogue for about two dozen Jews.
”There is no synagogue there,” Cooley said.
“The services are held in the second-floor apartment of one family.”
Santa Clara, in central Cuba, also has about 25 Jews in its community, some of whom come to the city from the countryside for services.
TORAHS AS PEOPLE
Sometimes they don’t all make it and they can’t fulfill the traditional Jewish requisite of 10 faithful.
”So they’ll count the Torahs they have as people to make up the 10,” Cooley said.
At the Jewish cemetery outside Santa Clara, the Palm Beach County visitors found the newest Holocaust memorial in the Western Hemisphere, a plaque and a pathway of stones brought from the heroic Jewish ghetto in Warsaw.
”They had gone to great lengths to bring that memorial into being,” Silbey said. “It was touching and the strength of their belief was very inspiring. They take pride in their nationality and their Jewish culture.
“They are cohesive, still hanging on.”
But of those two dozen members of the community, only two are children, raising some concern about the future of Jews on the island.
Weiner said that when she toured Jewish cemeteries, she kept looking for the names of Polish relatives who she had been told were killed in the Holocaust.
”I kept looking, hoping that somehow they had made it to Cuba and we just never knew it,” Weiner said.
But they weren’t there.