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Cuba's 1,300 Jews keep the faith – with help from abroad
CubaNews / July 2003

By Larry Luxner

Apart from a bronze plaque in Hebrew and Spanish identifying itself as “Congregación Hatikva,” the crumbling, one-story blue-and-white building is indistinguishable from the others along Santiago de Cuba’s narrow, cobblestoned Calle Corona.

As the Caribbean sun begins to drop be-hind 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 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 real rabbi since 1966, but every Shabbat, we study the Torah and everyone participates,” Eugenia Faria Levy, president of Hatikvah, says proudly.

After services are over, the hungry congregants move to an adjoining room for traditional Shabbat dinner — complete with arroz con pollo, hard 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 1959 revolution.

Of the total, some 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 Gran Sinagoga Bet Shalom, or simply “El Patronato.” Located in Havana’s Vedado district, the Patronato is the largest and most active of Cuba’s five remaining synagogues.

Miller, 78, says Cuba’s Jewish population has stabilized in recent years as Jews leave for Israel or Florida, and new people — usually the non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages — convert and join the community.

“We’re definitely better off now than in the early ‘90s,” said the retired surgeon, who’s been president of the Patronato since 1981.

“In general, the Jews live the same as everyone else, and in some ways better. Some receive money from their families [in Miami], some don’t. But the community has lots of friends. We don’t do fund-raising campaigns, but if we have an opportunity, we ask visitors to give a few dollars to help out,” said Miller, adding that “everything we have comes from the Canadian Jewish Congress. We’ve never tried to get things from the United States.”

Miller, interviewed in a tiny wood-paneled office crammed with religious books, Jewish calendars and assorted souvenirs from Israel, told CubaNews that 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 homes.

Nestor Szevach, coordinator of Cuba programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is currently the only foreigner authorized by the Castro government to assist Cuba’s Jewish community.

A native of Argentina, the 35-year-old Sze-vach was previously community director of Tiferet Israel in Vicente Lopez, a suburb of Buenos Aires. He and his wife Mara, 28, now live in Havana; together, they supervise the Joint’s $90,000 annual Cuba budget.

“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 now runs a Sunday school attended by 70 children and 30 adults.

Beginning at 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 taken 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 visiting Conservative rabbis from Los Angeles, San Diego and Buenos Aires.

In the lobby of the Patronato are two marble plaques commemorating a recent synagogue renova-tion 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 prayer book, as Jewish teens light Chanukah candles nearby.

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

Miller, who has sometimes been portrayed as an ally of the Castro regime, admits he’s in an uncomfortable 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 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 Jew-ish community what he thinks about politics. We’re not pro-Castro or anti-Castro here. If someone wants to be a dissident, let him be one — but not inside the Patronato.”

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