Cuba has never been on my list of countries to visit. With the uncertainty regarding individual travel, I have always been concerned that I might be entering a country that I may not be able to exit. In 2014, president Barrack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba for United States citizens. Since his election, president Donald Trump has proposed to reinstate many of these limits. Last week I took advantage of this current window of opportunity and participated in an organized trip to Jewish Cuba. During my time there, I discovered a community that was effectively forbidden to practice communal Judaism for thirty years, much like the community in the former Soviet Union. Now, Judaism is blossoming again in Cuba, and many young Cuban Jews are choosing to make aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel.
Jews helped discover Cuba in 1492. When Christopher Columbus disembarked on the island, three crypto-Jews who were fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, accompanied him on his voyage: Luis de Torres (Columbus’ translator), Juan de Cabrera (founder of the city of Neiva in Colombia), and Rodrigo de Triana (the first mariner to spot Cuba). Soon, the Spanish Inquisition followed them to the New World. Francisco Gomez de Leon, a wealthy secret Jew, was the first Jew in Cuba sentenced to death by the Inquisition. His fortune was confiscated by the church. Sephardic Jews continued coming to Cuba from Brazil during the 16th and 17th centuries. Dutch Jews joined them in 1800s.
Notwithstanding these earlier contacts, the current community dates its existence to after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Ashkenazi Jews started arriving in Cuba to work in plantations and businesses owned by United States citizens.
Many Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews from Turkey immigrated to Cuba between 1910 and 1920. They were planning to permanently settle in the United States, but the US had strict quotas for immigration. They ended up staying in Cuba, and founded a very successful garment industry.
Jews continued arriving in Cuba before, during, and after the Holocaust. By 1959, there were 15,000 Jews in the community. After the revolution of 1959, about ninety five percent of the Jewish community left Cuba. The five percent who remained behind did so because they were too old and frail to leave, or because they did not have the economic means to start over somewhere else. A few remained because they were committed communists. Many in the expatriate Jewish Cuban community blame these ideologues for the expropriation of property that took place after Fidel Castro’s victory.
Cuba’s new communist government did not restrict religious practice. However, people with any religious affiliation were not allowed to join the Communist Party, which limited their economic, social and professional opportunities.
During the thirty years that religion was frowned upon in Cuba, the Jewish community went underground. Most Jews kept their distance from any organized observance. A few brave leaders kept the synagogues going. There were so few of them that they created what is known as the “Cuban minyan,” eight adults and two Torah scrolls. They paid a high price professionally and socially for this endeavor. The communist government would not permit religious people to study in the universities and hold professional jobs. Other Cubans kept their distance from them so as not to be tainted as well.
As a result of this, a whole generation of Cuban Jews grew up with very little knowledge of Judaism. There were no rabbis or mohels. The last bris and bar mitzvah ceremonies were celebrated right before the revolution of 1959. This situation was very similar to that of Soviet Jewry before glasnost.
In 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, Cuba lost its Soviet patronage and changed the law regarding religious practice. Members of the Communist Party were now allowed to belong to religious organizations. This opened a door for the revival of Jewish life in Cuba.
One man I spoke to described the the dual rebuilding process that ensued. Jews had to rediscover and rebuild the Jewish identity inside of themselves that had been suppressed for so long. At the same time, Jews had to rebuild institutions and communal relationships.
The American Joint Distribution Committee was the first to send rabbis and community organizers to educate the community and perform religious ceremonies. While many adults grew up distant from Judaism, their children are interested and have grown up with it. It is the children who help bring the adults back to Jewish observance. I attended a Friday night Shabbat service in Havana entirely conducted by the synagogues teens and young adults. The Patronato, Havana’s Jewish community center, has a Hebrew school that serves 118 students. It has a library of Jewish books for research and for learning Hebrew. Thanks to the generosity of the JDC, the Patronato is one of the few places that has computers with a good Internet connection in Havana. Shabbat dinner, Passover Seders, and other community holiday celebrations are held in its social hall.
There are many scarcities in Cuba. Food and medicine are rationed. On average, people earn between $15 and $35 per month. The JDC, B’nai Brith, and the Jewish Federations of Argentina and Mexico started sending food, medications, and containers for each Jewish holiday with festive food and wine. At the Patronato, Jewish physicians donate their time and skills to anyone who needs them, and dispense medications for free. This is their main tikkun olam, repair the world, project. This outreach teaches other Cubans about Jews, and fosters goodwill between the community and the rest of the population.
Last year, the Maccabiah and Taglit Birthright came to Cuba. For the first time a Cuban team competed in the Maccabiah games in Israel, winning five medals. The first class of Jewish college students visited Israel with Birthright.
The young Jews of Cuba have a Jewish future, although it may not be in Cuba. Most of them are strong Zionists, and many are electing to live in Israel. The Cuban government, as an exception to its laws against emigration, permits aliya to Israel. The older members of the community are the ones who kept the embers of Judaism alive during the dark years of Soviet influence. The seniors of the community cannot leave Cuba and start over. They are unable replace their homes and health care elsewhere. Our assistance makes it possible for their children to relocate to Israel whilst knowing that their parents will not lack for food and medicine. They did not choose to be born in communist Cuba. Those who bear animus toward the Cuban government should not penalize these Cuban Jews. As it says in the Talmud, “Kol Israel arevim ze la ze,” (Shavuot 39a) or “all of Israel are responsible for each other.” It is incumbent upon us to help them.
I spoke with one older man about the Jewish future in Cuba. He said he does not think about the future, and is focused on today. While some young people have been making aliyah, he has devoted his heart and soul to rebuilding his Jewish-self and Cuba’s Jewish community since 1990. He said that the Jewish voice is a special voice with a different message. It needs to be heard in the world, it needs to be heard in Cuba, and therefore that is where he will remain.