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
"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
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."