JTA / November 30, 2006
By Larry Luxner
MIAMI — As the world focuses its attention on Cuba's ailing President Fidel Castro — who was too sick to attend his own 80th birthday bash in Havana — Cuba's Jews are enjoying a rare celebration of their own.
For the next month, the island's tiny Jewish community will mark its 100th anniversary with religious services, music, dancing, parties and speeches.
The festivities were to begin Thursday evening with a cultural gala at Havana's National Fine Arts Museum. And on Dec. 1, local historian Maritza Corrales was to present her book "The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba" at the biblically themed Hotel Raquel in Havana's historic colonial quarter.
Throughout December, the Emuna dance company will perform contemporary Jewish folkloric dances in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, while in Santiago de Cuba, the works of Jewish artists will be exhibited at Congregación Hatikva. The leader of that synagogue, Eugenia Farin Levy will also present her book, "Historia de la Comunidad Judía Cubana en Mapas" (History of Cuba's Jewish Community in Maps).
Some 1,500 Jews currently live on the island, more than 85% of them in Havana. That's according to Adela Dworin, president of Havana's largest synagogue, the Patronato.
Sources in Miami, however, put the actual number of Jews in Cuba at between 600 and 800. They point out that close to 700 Cuban Jews have emigrated to Israel in the last 10 years, with nearly half of them eventually relocating to South Florida.
Dworin took over leadership of the Jewish community last March after its longtime president, 80-year-old José Miller, died of a heart attack. Miller's grandson, William Miller, 30, is the community's vice-president.
"For us, it's very sad not to have Dr. Miller with us, because this celebration was his idea," Dworin told JTA in a phone interview Thursday from Havana. "The actual centenary of the community was in August, but we had to postpone it after he died."
Although Jews have been living in Cuba off and on for centuries, it wasn't until 1906 that 11 American Jews living on the island established a Reform synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation, with services in English. They also consecrated a cemetery in Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana, officially marking the start of institutionalized Jewish life in Cuba.
By 1959, Cuba had an estimated 15,000 Jews, and they were for the most part prosperous, wealthy merchants with shoe factories, department stores and mansions. Following Castro's sweeping confiscations of private property, most of them fled to South Florida, with smaller numbers emigrating to Israel and various Latin American countries.
At present, Havana has three functioning synagogues in Havana, while Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba have one each. In addition, much smaller Jewish communities hold regular Shabbat services at private homes in the provincial capitals of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Guantánamo.
Dworin said several prominent rabbis are in Cuba for the festivities, including Chile's Samuel Szteinhandler and Arthur Schneier, founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Also set to attend the opening-night commemoration was Caridad Diego, chief of religious affiars of the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee.
The islandwide event marking 100 years of organized Jewish life in Cuba was also originally supposed to include a visit to the Patronato by Fidel Castro himself.
But that had to be scrubbed when the bearded revolutionary was rushed to a hospital in late July for emergency surgery of an undisclosed nature. The illness forced Castro to turn power over to his 75-year-old brother Raúl for the first time since 1959.
By coincidence, the Jewish festivities overlap the Communist regime's official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Yet Fidel didn't even make it to a military parade in his honor, telling supporters in a statement read on government-run TV "it is with great sorrow that I bid you farewell for not being able to personally thank you and embrace every one of you."
Castro has not been seen in public since his surgery; foreign experts and many Cubans are convinced he has terminal cancer.
"I don't believe this is a moment for celebration," said Moises Asís, an anti-Castro exile living in Miami. "What's there to celebrate?"
Asís taught Hebrew and led the B'nai B'rith Havana chapter before fleeing Cuba in 1992 with his wife and daughter. He told JTA that Jews — like the rest of Cuba's 11.2 million inhabitants — enjoy no basic political or economic freedoms whatsoever.
"Everything is about money," he said. "Cuba may have the label of a communist country, but the reality is one of brutal capitalism. Workers are exploited more by the Castro regime today than they were in England in the 19th century."
Yet he acknowledges that the regime has never been anti-Semitic despite Castro's vicious criticism of Israel.
On Nov. 10, Cuba's foreign ministry issued a harsh rebuke of Israel for "atrocities" against the Palestinian people. In calling on the UN Security Council to condemn the Jewish state, it said an Israeli artillery barrage in the Gaza Strip that killed 19 people "demonstrates the criminal nature of the aggressor, which enjoys the political, economic and military support of the United States of America."
A few days before that, the UN General Assembly voted 183-4 to condemn the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba — an annual ritual in which Israel was once again one of the very few countries (along with Palau and the Marshall Islands) to side with the United States in opposing such resolutions.
Yet private Israeli companies have also invested heavily in Cuban citrus and real-estate ventures.
"The discrimination in Cuba is not specifically against Jews, but against all religions including Jews," said Asís. "It's true we had some privileges, but the Jewish communty was so small and so weak that it would have been very easy for the government to destroy that community if it wanted. When it comes to treatment of Jews, Cuba was one of the most tolerant countries in the communist world."
The Castro regime has also never stopped U.S. or Canadian Jewish organizations from delivering wheelchairs, school supplies and kosher food to the local Jewish community.
Robert Safran, medical director of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission in Berkeley, Calif., has been to the island 11 times. His wife June — who's now on her 25th trip to Cuba — directs the mission, which has a specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department to provide humanitarian assistance to Cuba.
Cuba experts speculate that U.S. policy toward the island might change dramatically now that the Democrats control Congress. At the very least, regulations regarding humanitarian and possibly even leisure travel to Cuba could soon be relaxed.
Safran says he isn't sure what might happen.
"A lot of American groups are going to Cuba to help the Jews, but it probably doesn't make any difference politically," he said. "It isn't going to change the policy of our country, and it isn't going to change policies in Cuba. Most of the people I know who are active in these efforts stay away from politics as much as possible."