JTA / March 20, 2006
By Larry Luxner
MIAMI —It was December 1999 — barely two years after Pope John Paul II's visit to officially atheist Cuba — and Fidel Castro was meeting with 70 religious leaders on the touchy subject of declaring Dec. 25 a national holiday.
Castro then turned to Dr. José Miller, president of Cuba's tiny Jewish community, and asked for his opinion of Christmas, given that no Jewish holidays were being given equal consideration.
Miller stood up and declared that "as a Jew, I would feel very happy with the designation of Dec. 25 as a national holiday, because after all, what is Christmas if not the celebration of one of the greatest Jews in history, Jesus of Nazareth?"
That story is told by Rev. José López, secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches. López considered himself a close friend of Miller, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 80.
"We will never forget his words on many occasions that showed his love for Cuba, his Jewish principles and affection for his Christian brethren," López said.
"He was the person who, for many years, insisted that the Jewish community belong to the Cuban Council of Churches. He always got the same answer, that we were an organization of churches, of believers in Christ," he said, adding that finally, after careful consideration, Miller was welcomed as a "fraternal associate" and thereafter invited to all official functions.
Eddie Levy, chairman of the South Florida organization Jewish Solidarity, told the Miami Herald: "If there is a Jewish community in Cuba, it's because of his leadership. It was his job, his work, his life."
Miller was born in Sancti Spíritus province in 1925; his parents had moved to Cuba from Lithuania in the early 1900s. He studied dentistry at the University of Havana and was considered one of the island's best specialists in facial reconstruction surgery.
Since 1981, Miller had also been the president of the Patronato, a large synagogue in Havana's once-fashionable Vedado district. After a heart attack forced him to retire in 1994, Miller dedicated himself to saving Cuba's dwindling Jewish community from extinction.
To that end, he managed to revive smaller synagogues in Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. But he was also criticized by Cuban exiles in Miami as a tool of the Castro regime for refusing to support the dissident movement or speak out against repression in Cuba.
"The government does not manipulate me," Miller insisted in a 2003 interview with JTA. "What interests me is how Castro acts toward the Jewish community. I don't ask anyone in the Jewish 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."
Avner Tavori, a spokesman for the World Jewish Congress, called Miller "a veteran friend and leader of the Jewish community in Cuba, where he maintained authentic Judaism in the most creative way."
Praise also came from Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the B'nai B'rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project.
"Dr. Miller was a true humanitarian and leader, and without his guidance over these many years, I do not believe that the community could be as vibrant as it is today," said Cohen, who has known Miller for over 10 years. "He was not only a good friend, but a brother in our work to make the Jewish community of Cuba strong. At this point, I have no idea who will take his place."