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Cuban and Latin American Jews form distinct communities in Miami
JTA / July 9, 2003

By Larry Luxner

MIAMI — Cuban Jews in Havana like to joke that every year at Passover, their Seder ends with the fervent prayer: “L’shana haba’ah b’Miami— next year in Miami!”

For the 8,000 or so Jews of Cuban origin now living in South Florida, that prayer came true more than 40 years ago.

Today, most of these “Jubans” — as they are nicknamed — have made it economically. Yet they have little in common with the thousands of Jews who have more recently emigrated here from Argentina, Uruguay and other Latin countries embroiled in crisis.

“There are relations between Cuban Jews and other Latin American Jews in Miami, but it’s not that close,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Suchlicki, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, is 63. He came to the United States in 1960, enrolling at the University of Miami and earning bachelor's and master's degrees in American history before launching ICCAS in 1999.

“Several years ago, some people tried to form a group, but it never got off the ground. Miami is so dispersed, I just don’t think there are points of convergence. There’s no hostility, but no togetherness either.”

Two synagogues cater specifically to the Cuban Jewish community: Temple Moses, a Sephardic congregation in North Bay Village, and the Cuban Hebrew Congregation, an Ashkenazi temple in Miami Beach.

Argentine-born Rabbi Héctor Epelbaum, who was hired by the Cuban Hebrew Congregation about a year ago, said his synagogue has just over 400 member families, 90% of whom are of Cuban origin.

“In my congregation, I don’t speak about Argentines or Cubans, I speak about Jews,” said Epelbaum. “The old generation tried to sustain the language and traditions, but this second generation of Cubans is completely mixed. They know how to combine the warm feelings of being Latin with the organizational skills of the Americans.”

In some ways, Cuban Jews in Miami have it a lot easier than the Argentines coming today. For one thing, most of those fleeing Cuba in the early 1960s were wealthy or upper middle-class professionals who spoke some English and owned successful businesses. And they had few immigration problems, since under U.S. law, any Cuban who makes it to American soil may stay here legally.

But for more recent arrivals, getting out of Cuba wasn’t easy.

Moisés Asís, an information analyst who at one point was the island’s only Hebrew teacher, had been trying to leave for years. But the Cuban government wouldn’t let him emigrate with his wife Teresa and young daughter Dina.

“Finally, the Spanish government, via the Israelis, pressured the Cubans to let me leave as a political refugee,” he said. “I came to Miami and spent four and a half years loading boxes for a local company.”

Today, Asís, 50, owns a comfortable townhouse in suburban Westchester and works as an adult protective investigator for Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

In 1992, Avraham Ashkenazi became the first Cuban Jew to immigrate to Israel in 26 years. By last year, Ashkenazi decided he had had enough of the Holy Land — and arrived in Miami speaking hardly a word of English.

Ashkenazi, now 37, works full-time for the Cuban Hebrew Congregation as a graphic designer and rents an apartment on Michigan Avenue, just a block away. He says he misses Israel but never thinks about Cuba and has no desire to go back — even though his elderly father still works at Congregación Adat Israel in Old Havana.

“I don’t want to arrive at the airport and be treated like dirt,” he told JTA. “I don’t want to see all that misery and not be able to do anything about it.”

To ensure the community’s history isn’t forgotten, local leaders plan to create a living record of contemporary Cuban Jewish life.

The Cuban Jewish Community Documentation Project — co-sponsored by ICCAS and the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies — will include a comprehensive documentation center, an interactive website, electronic family histories and scrapbooks, video and audio interviews of Cuban Jews, a film for broadcast distribution, a coffee-table book, a conference and a traveling exhibit.

Said Jaime Mandel, vice-chair of UM’s board of trustees and a leading member of Miami’s Cuban Jewish community: “The only way we can ensure the continuity of our traditions tomorrow is by preserving yesterday’s memories.”

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