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    Community Finds New Life in Castro-less Cuba
    Nathan Guttman | Wed. Sep 19, 2007

    Havana, Cuba – During the High Holy Days this year, an unlikely
    community is celebrating not just the start of a new year but also the
    beginning of a new era.

    Adela Dworin, head of the Jewish community in Havana, can boast of more
    than 10,000 volumes on Jewish literature at the Abraham Marcus Matterin
    communal library in the capital.

    At Rosh Hashanah services last week at Havana's Beth Shalom synagogue, a
    record crowd of 200 people was in attendance, with children running in
    the aisles. Many of the worshippers were converts who came to Judaism as
    recently as last January. For the first time since the Cuban revolution,
    the Jewish community is growing and distant Jews are returning.

    During the past decade, the Jewish community has flown in a group of
    rabbis every two years to lead Jewish conversion classes. The latest
    class ended this January with 73 men each going through a ritual
    circumcision at a local hospital. Most of them were on hand last week
    for their first Rosh Hashanah as full-fledged Jews.

    This was also the first Rosh Hashanah without Fidel Castro in firm
    command of the country. Castro's health status has been a matter of
    widespread speculation since the leader failed to surface the day of his
    recent 81st birthday. But while the uncertainty has had many here on
    edge, the Jewish community is wearing a confident and hopeful face,
    which many attribute to Castro's unexpected openness toward religion
    since the fall of the Soviet Union.

    "We are on our way back from assimilation," said William Miller, a
    full-time communal worker who runs the local operations for the
    international Jewish organization World ORT.

    Today, Cuba's Jewish community consists of about 1,500 members, most of
    them in the capital, Havana, which has three synagogues and a Jewish
    community center. During last week's services at Beth Shalom, in the
    relatively affluent neighborhood of Vedado, there was a mixed crowd:
    older community members with younger families; many children, and the
    inevitable presence of Israeli backpackers.

    The service itself was conducted in Spanish, with some translation into
    Hebrew and English. In a country where product shortages are a constant
    concern, a last-minute snag almost left the congregation without honey
    for the traditional blessings with apples. But an hour before the
    holiday began, a batch of honey was found.

    Shortages are a steady fact of life for every community in Cuba. To
    address this problem, each year Canadian Jews send to Cuba a shipment of
    kosher food packages, a gift that has turned out to be not only a
    welcome addition to insufficient food rations but also a means to
    attract Jews back to the community.

    The Passover handout of the Canadian food, which brings together not
    only active Jews but also those who have little to do with the
    community, serves as a chance to reach out and offer otherwise
    disconnected Jews an opportunity to join the community.

    "It's a great way to get our message out," Miller said.

    Things were not always so encouraging. During Castro's early years in
    power, religion was officially shunted to the side in a fashion similar
    to the Soviet Union, which was the guiding star for Castro's regime.
    Members of religious groups were not allowed to be part of the Communist
    Party and were denied jobs in government and academia. Many books by
    Jewish writers were banned at the time. On the other hand, even during
    the early years of the revolution, Castro made sure that religious
    groups were protected and were not victims of violence.

    Most Jews fled to the United States. For the remaining community, the
    small size and the taboo on religion led to a nearly 90% intermarriage
    rate, according to some community members.

    "The old people kept on coming to synagogue, but they didn't bring their
    children and grandchildren," said Miller, whose grandfather was the
    previous president of the congregation.

    Things began to change in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    While Fidel remained a strict atheist, his interest in religious
    communities grew, peaking in a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II. Later
    that year, the Cuban leader convened a meeting with representatives of
    all religions.

    "He shook my hand and kissed me on both cheeks," said Adela Dworin, the
    community president who has spent the past 37 years promoting Jewish
    life in Havana. "I didn't wash my face for two weeks."

    When it was Dworin's turn to speak, she invited Castro to visit the
    Jewish community during Hanukkah. Fidel said he did not know the
    holiday, so Dworin explained: "It's a holiday commemorating the
    revolution of the Jews."

    Soon after, Castro came to the Jewish community center to celebrate
    Hanukkah.

    These days, the main goal of local Jewish leaders is to attract young
    Jews who grew up in homes in which Judaism was hardly practiced or there
    was only one Jewish parent. One of the centerpieces of this effort is
    the conversion seminars for children of intermarried families. Three
    rabbis come from Argentina, Chile and Ecuador every second year. For
    men, the course ends with a circumcision overseen by a mohel and a
    urologist. Havana has no ritual bath, or mikveh, so converts use the
    ocean to finish the ceremony.

    Among the most recent batch of converts was Daniel Motola, 28. He grew
    up with a Jewish father but little knowledge of Judaism. Then two years
    ago his grandfather asked him to carry on the family's religious
    tradition, and Motola jumped in with abandon. He is now the community's
    librarian and also one of its main activists.

    During Rosh Hashanah, Motola sat near a table reserved for the so-called
    "religious group," which studies and attends services on a regular
    basis. At the table was Jeilo Montagne, 26, who started visiting the
    synagogue seven years ago.

    "I began looking for my roots," Montagne said. "Now I come here because
    of the community life. We meet here every Saturday."

    The biggest missing link is a rabbi. A decade ago, the government
    allowed for a Jewish representative to go off to New York for rabbinic
    training at Yeshiva University.

    "We're still waiting for him to return," Dworin said.

    In the meantime, two representatives from the American Jewish Joint
    Distribution Committee in Argentina assist the community with services
    and teaching. Community activities include holiday and Sabbath services
    and a Sunday school attended by 60 children. Havana has its own kosher
    butcher, though Jews are restricted in the amount of meat they are
    allowed to buy, as are all Cubans due to rationing regulations.

    Jewish life in Cuba, however, does come with some advantages, most
    notably in the complete lack of any security precautions outside Jewish
    communal buildings. While their neighbors in North America have gotten
    used to seeing police cars parked outside synagogues during the high
    holy days, Cuban Jews feel no need to take this precaution.

    "Look, it is completely free," Dworin said.

    "We never even think of having any guards," she added. "We are totally
    safe being Jews in Havana."

    The bigger point of anxiety these days is the status of the country's
    leader. Ever since Castro underwent surgery in the summer of 2006, his
    health has been a steady source of speculation. The government's
    propaganda has insisted that Castro is still running the country — from
    lengthy articles (titled "Reflections of the President") in the daily
    newspaper Granma to signs painted on buildings, congratulating the
    leader for his 80th birthday, which passed more than a year ago.

    But meanwhile, the Cuban government has at least temporarily transferred
    power to Castro's brother Raul, whom many in the country view as the
    future. Observers say that the new regime will not likely mean any big
    changes for the Jewish community.

    "I cannot imagine any circumstances which will be negative for the
    Jews," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign
    Relations. Sweig said that the two leaders have the same views on issues
    of religious freedom.

    Dworin said there is some concern that any big changes in the economic
    situation could cause some young Jews to leave for the United States.

    "We have these great young professionals who are active in the
    community, but many of them still speak about leaving," Dworin said. "If
    things improve here, maybe Cubans won't want to leave."

    http://www.forward.com/articles/11653/

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