Hanukah is the first holiday to commemorate the fight to preserve religious freedom and liberty. As such, it is not just a Jewish holiday but also a universal one; because without Hanukah there would not have been Jesus, the Jew.
We all know the story of how a small band of Maccabees defeated the much larger Syrian and Greek authorities that imposed Hellenism and Paganism, by which the Temple was desecrated and Jews could not practice their religion. This is also a victory for the Maccabees over those Jews who became so Hellenized that they lost their Jewish bearings. Accordingly, Jewish sovereignty was reestablished for the next two centuries until the Romans arrived.
Twenty-three centuries later, the Communist revolution in Cuba launched by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara banned any religious practices in the country and outlawed Zionism. Under this regime, virulent propaganda attacks against Israel were launched. Cubans also hosted and trained Palestinian terrorists. Last week, when a group of 26 of us participated in a UJA Mission to Cuba, a statue of Yasir Arafat was dedicated. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. Meanwhile, Alan Gross, an American Jew, has been unfairly imprisoned under fake charges of espionage. He’s being used as “trade bait” for five imprisoned Cuban spies.
Because American companies were nationalized and businesses and personal properties seized, 90 percent of Jews, largely middle class and business owners, left the country. Those unable to leave or for family reasons remained in Cuba comprise a Jewish population of approximately 1,500.
With the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the need for hard currency, Castro allowed religious observances, which encouraged co-religionists to visit and spend cash in Cuba.
Using this as an opening, one of our overseas beneficiary agencies, the JDC, helped to establish schools, resurrect synagogues, and bring in rabbis and trained cantors and lay leaders to reinvigorate Jewish life. It also set up a social welfare service network and pharmacies for the Jewish population, which is very poor.
When we met with the head of the Jewish community, she announced that recently there were 16 brit millot for individuals ranging from age 16 to 62 years and that next month there would be 20 weddings, most of which involved non-Jewish spouses who converted.
Cuba is a land full of contradictions. It is very anti-Zionist, yet over 2,000 Jews made aliyah over the past decade. Last Sunday, we witnessed 100 Sunday School children singing the revolutionary Cuban national anthem and then Hatikvah. One of the passages in Hatikvah states, “Lihiot am 'hofshi be artzeinu,” to be a free people in our own country. Hopefully one day this will be achieved in Cuba, as it has been in Israel for almost 65 years.
May the story of Hanukah serve to “enlighten” the world on the power of religious freedom.