I am just back from a place that will never leave me. I just went to Cuba, with twenty-two other women from MetroWest’s Women’s Philanthropy. We returned on Monday night, at least physically, but we are all still turning over in our minds all of the different facets of one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been.
We went to visit the Jewish community of Cuba. If I know nothing else right now about Cuba, I do know that the Jews of Cuba are proof that meaningful Jewish life can happen anywhere in the world, as long as we can provide the resources. This week, I’m going to describe how there came to be a Jewish community in Cuba in the first place and its miraculous rebirth in the last twenty years. Much of the information is available in a wonderful book we received as a gift before we left from the mission co-chairs, Wendie Ploscowe and Anna Fisch and honorary co-chair Betty Feinberg, called “An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba” by Ruth Behar (2007). It’s an engaging, haunting book, full of pictures and stories of the Jews of Cuba, many of whom we were privileged to meet.
Although there have been Jews in Cuba since the days of Columbus, the first recorded organization of the Jewish community is in 1906, when a group of eleven American Jews living in Cuba founded the United Hebrew Congregation in Havana. The Americans had come as part of a wave of investors after the end of the Spanish American war. At the same time, Jews from Turkey started to emigrate to Cuba due to the unrest from World War I. Jews from Turkey constituted the largest part of the Jewish population until the 1920s, when immigration from Europe grew as the United States government imposed strict quotas. By 1958, Havana had five congregations and there were 15,000 Jews in Cuba. By 1962, after the Revolution, 90% of the Jewish community had departed, after businesses were appropriated and in fear of living under a Communist regime. The remaining 1,500 were not free to practice their Judaism publicly, as Cuba had become an atheist state. If you professed any religion, not just Judaism, you could not be a member of the Communist party, thus severely restricting the professions one could enter. So few people attended services that the “Cuban minyan” was instituted: however many Jews were present, however many Torahs were needed to fill in for people, and God. Constrained in this way, it’s not surprising to learn that by 1992, the identified Jewish community in Cuba had dwindled to around 800 souls.
In 1992, however, political fallout from the dissolution of the Soviet Union helped save the Cuban Jewish community. Without the pipeline of financial aid and durable goods, food and medicine from the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro realized he would need new sources of income. By becoming a secular state, religious groups of all beliefs could then come in and provide aid. Dr. Jose’ Miller, then head of the Cuban Jewish community knew that his community was in dire straits. The roof of the once glorious Patronato synagogue was in such disrepair that birds could fly in and out. Jews didn’t know how to pray, had lost touch with the beautiful traditions of our heritage. But Dr. Miller knew that there was help available in the Jewish world. He called the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and told them that if they didn’t come to help, there would shortly be no Jews left in Cuba. Since 1992, the Joint has been in Cuba on a continuous basis, and the population has again reached approximately 1,500. What we heard over and over again, from everyone we met, was that if the Joint hadn’t come, Jewish life on the island would have ended. Instead, we participated in a Friday night service ably led by members of the community (something unimaginable even a few years ago), met young people who have been on March of the Living and Taglit Birthright Israel, and visited all three synagogues in Havana. None of this would be possible without the Joint, and what the Joint does in Cuba – or anywhere else around the world – wouldn’t be possible without each of your gifts to the Annual Campaign.
In the weeks ahead, I hope to bring you the individual stories of the people we met and some impressions of the mystifying, marvelous, maddening place that Cuba is today.
Thank you for letting me share my journey with you; thanks even more for being a part of the journey with your support of the Annual Campaign and the Joint.
It’s good to be home!