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In Cuba, new Jews help maintain community's stability, despite exodus
JTA / July 9, 2003

By Larry Luxner

SANTIAGO DE CUBA — Except for a bronze plaque in Hebrew and Spanish identifying itself as "Congregación Hatikva," the crumbling, one-story blue-and-white building is indistinguishable from all the others along narrow, cobblestoned Calle Corona.

As the Caribbean sun begins to drop behind the clouds, an old woman shuffles by, selling panquecitos for one peso each. A boisterous street party blares reggae and salsa music from the house across the street, while at the little synagogue, 31 Jews of all ages and colors sit in black plastic chairs, waiting patiently for Friday night services to begin.

Finally, in walks Julio Amona Gómez, the de facto rabbi of Santiago de Cuba. For the next hour, Gómez — a biochemistry professor who converted to Judaism in 1996 — leads his congregation in prayer as an electric fan struggles to keep the sweating worshippers cool.

"We haven't had a rabbi since 1966, but every Shabbat afternoon, we study the Torah, and everyone participates," says Eugenia Faria Levy, president of Hatikvah and Gómez's sister-in-law. Faria, who recently wrote a short history of the Jewish community here, noted that before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, between 800 and 1,000 Jews lived in Santiago de Cuba; today there are no more than 80.

"Fidel has always been respectful of the Jewish community, maybe because we respected the laws of Cuba," she said, adding with some pride that "not a single member of the Jewish community of Santiago de Cuba is a member of the Communist Party."

After Friday night services, the congregants enjoy Shabbat dinner in an adjoining room — complete with arroz con pollo, a few rolls, tomato salad and lemonade.

"By luck, our vice-president is a veterinarian," said Faria. "Even though he's not a shochet [kosher butcher], we slaughter chickens the best way we can, trying to stay close to the rituals of kashrut."

Such is life today for the estimated 1,300 Jews still living in Cuba, down from 15,000 or so before the revolution. Of that number, around 1,000 reside in Havana, with much smaller numbers in Santiago de Cuba (80); Camagüey (70); Guantánamo (60); Sancti Spíritus (45); Granma (35); Cienfuegos (20) and Santa Clara (less than 20).

Dr. José Miller is president of the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, also known as the Patronato. Located in Havana's once-fashionable Vedado district, the Patronato is the largest and most active of Cuba's five remaining synagogues.

Miller says Cuba's Jewish population has stabilized in recent years as Jews emigrate to Israel or the United States and new people — mainly the non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages — convert and join the community.

"We're definitely better off now than we were in the early '90s," said the 78-year-old retired surgeon, who has been president of the Patronato since 1981.

"In general, the Jews live the same as everyone else, and in some ways, we live better. Some receive money from their families, some don't. But the community has lots of friends. We don't make campaigns to raise money, but if we have an opportunity, we ask visitors to give us a few dollars to help out. Everything we have comes from the Canadian Jewish Congress. We have never tried to get stuff from the U.S."

Miller, interviewed in a tiny wood-paneled office crammed with religious books, Jewish calendars and seder plates, said a butcher shop in Old Havana sells kosher meat three times a week at subsidized prices to registered members of the Jewish community, even though few people here actually keep kosher.

Nestor Szevach, coordinator of Cuba programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is currently the only foreigner authorized to work full-time with Cuba's Jewish community. A native of Argentina, the 35-year-old Szevach was previously community director of Tiferet Israel in Vicente Lopez, a suburb of Buenos Aires.

He and his 28-year-old wife Mara live in Havana and are in charge of supervising the Joint's $90,000 annual budget for Cuba projects.

"We're the fifth couple working in Cuba since the Joint started its Cuba program in 1992," he said. "In Argentina, I was director of a community center that took extreme security measures. Here, there are no expressions of anti-Semitism, and all the synagogues keep their doors open."

The Patronato is the undisputed center of Jewish life in Cuba. Thanks to money from the Joint, the community runs a Sunday school attended by 70 children and 30 adults.

Beginning around 8:30 every Sunday morning, two rented buses fan out all over Havana, picking up children and their professors. They're dropped off at the Patronato in time for a 9:45 a.m. dairy breakfast. At 1 p.m., after classes are finished, the kids are transported back home.

"In every family in Cuba, there's someone who isn't Jewish," said Szevach. "And if it's the mother, then the kids aren't Jewish. But we have converted around 300 people who were already married. Before the conversion, they take 20 weeks of classes."

Szevach said the conversions are performed by three Conservative rabbis from Los Angeles, San Diego and Buenos Aires.

In the lobby of the Patronato are marble plaques commemorating a recent synagogue renovation and thanking the Greater Miami Jewish Federation for its help. There are also dozens of photos including one showing Fidel Castro clutching a siddur, or Jewish prayer book, as members of the community light Chanukah candles.

And therein lies an enduring paradox for Cuba's Jews: despite the regime's official hostility toward Israel and Zionism, Castro appears to have bent over backwards to accomodate Cuba's Jewish minority.

Even so, Jews who don't have access to hard currency suffer economically like anyone else.

One middle-aged Jewish man in Santiago de Cuba earns 325 pesos a month in his government job. That works out to $12 at the official exchange rate, but the man — who asked not to be named — said he supplements his income by running a part-time delivery service on the side.

"There are many people who live much worse than I do," he said. "Families are leaving, and they help those who stay. But people who don't get anything live terribly, because here you must have divisas [hard currency] to eat well."

Miller, who has sometimes been portrayed as an ally of the Castro regime, says he's in a difficult position.

"The government does not manipulate me," he insisted "What interests me is how Castro acts toward the Jewish community. If the government organizes a pro-Palestinian march in front of the U.S. Interests Section, I wouldn't go. But for Elián [González], I went."

Asked for his opinion about the Castro government's recent arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents, independent journalists, librarians and human-rights activists, Miller gets understandably nervous.

"There have been dissidents for years, and they manifest their dissent in various ways. But you have to be very careful," he warned. "There's a very thin red line between internal dissent and collaboration with the enemy. And if you cross it, you're longer a dissident."

Miller adds: "I don't ask anyone in the Jewish community what he thinks about politics. This community is not pro-Castro or anti-Castro. And if someone wants to be a dissident, let him be one — but not inside the Patronato."

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