Community in Cuba - World Jewish Congress

Cuba is currently home to 500 Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, a substantial amount of whom are Orthodox. In December 2006, the Jewish community of Cuba celebrated its 100th anniversary; after a century of struggles and triumphs, Cuban Jews have found themselves in a stable, revitalized condition where they could practice Judaism freely. Like the general population, Cuban Jews live with few resources.

The Jewish community in Cuba is represented by the Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba – the Cuban affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate
Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba

David Prinstein

53- 78328953
53- 78333778
 Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba

President: Adela Dworin

The history of the Jews in Cuba is related to the history of the island itself, and its discovery on October 27, 1492, by Christopher Columbus. The Spaniards Luis de Torres, Juan de Cabrera, and Rodrigo de Triana were all Marranos (Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism) who were believed to have traveled with Columbus and were among the first Europeans to walk that territory. Along with the first Spaniards that arrived on the island, it is believed that Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain came to Cuba around this time.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews immigrated to Cuba from Brazil due to persecution under Portuguese rule. These new Jewish immigrants became established in trade, and many of them eventually assimilated into Cuban society. A permanent Jewish community in Cuba was established in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. The United States had gained temporary control of the island, and as a result, several American-Ashkenazi Jews settled in the country. They mostly worked for US-owned plantations and businesses and established the first synagogue in Cuba.

The early 20th century saw an influx of Jewish immigration, as a large number of Sephardic Jews began to settle in the country and establish their community in the years preceding World War I. By 1920, many Jews from Eastern Europe also arrived in Cuba; though the majority of these immigrants only intended to use the island as a stopover on the way to the United States, America's strict immigration policy at the time resulted in many Jews staying on the island.

While some of these Jewish immigrants did quite well, particularly in the Cuban garment industry, others had trouble finding stable work. The desperate economic situation inspired the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to provide support to immigrants to alleviate the situation in 1922. Outreach for Jewish immigrants also saw the Israelite Center of Cuba, a local organization, transform its central structure into a varied group of activities in 1925. In addition to helping immigrants, the center included a library, a night school, a primary school, and a theater group. In 1926, the Hebrew Feminine Association of Cuba was also created, where women were provided work opportunities and a children's circle to drop off their kids. On the other hand, since 1929, the Zionists maintained the Zionist Union of Cuba, an important force during the 1920s and '30s when imminent poverty was suffered that went on to break up several parties in the 1940s.

The Cuban Jewish community was relatively stable in the post-war years, until the 1959 Revolution, which saw the establishment of a socialist state led by Fidel Castro. Almost all of Cuba’s Jews fled the country following Castro’s assumption of power. Though Jews were not specifically targeted, they, along with other members of Cuba’s middle class, suffered economically. In the initial years after the Revolution of 1959, the Jewish community in Cuba had decreased 20 times its previous amount. The majority of those who remained lived in Havana.

Post-revolution Cuba saw several religious groups being discriminated against, with Cuban Jews and Christians having restricted access to jobs and universities. However, Jews were still able to practice their religion and Cuba’s criminal code protected them against national, religious, and racial hate.

However, anti-Zionist sentiments pervaded Cuban society. Cuba allowed Palestinian terrorist camps to operate on the island, which soon after published anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli propaganda, and banned books by notable Jewish authors Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. In the late 1960s, a sizeable number of Jews were sent to forced labor camps for political dissidents, and Jewish activists in general were under constant surveillance by the Cuban state. As a result of such practices and sentiments, Jewish life in Cuba suffered.

Very few people, especially youth who did not want to get involved in religion, attended synagogues, and as a result, many were closed or abandoned. In 1973, Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel and later voted for the infamous resolution that stated “Zionism equals racism.” Throughout the 1980s, Jewish life was largely invisible, but in the early 1990s, Fidel Castro secretly allowed more than 400 Jews to emigrate to Israel in what was codenamed “Operation Cigar.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union and economic difficulties caused by the US embargo saw Cuba adopt more liberal policies in 1991, including allowing members of the Communist Party to participate in religious endeavors. This was the beginning of a revival of Jewish life in Cuba.

Today, the Cuban Jewish community has gradually grown and is recognized as a religious minority in Cuba. Though the general economic disparity in the region affects Jews in the country, the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S. has allowed Cuban Jews with families in America to receive some aid.

The years of the Holocaust

In the years preceding World War II, the rise of Nazism and a general trend of antisemitism saw many Jews turn their eyes towards the New World as a haven from the dangers forming in Europe. However, strict immigration policies throughout the world made things difficult for those attempting to escape Nazism.

During this period, Jewish leaders in Cuba had worked out a de facto arrangement that allowed them to have access to the President if the need arose, aiming to have some influence in allowing refugees into the country. Yet, the infamous case of the MS St. Louis in 1939 is indicative of the difficulties that plagued Jewish refugees. Cuba, just like Canada and the U.S., denied the ship’s passengers entry into Havana and eventually turned the ship away.

With that in mind, however, some Jewish refugees and survivors of the camps before, during, and after the Holocaust, were able to find some sense of sanctuary in Cuba, with more than 10,000 Jews arriving on the island between 1933 and 1944.

Demography estimated the Cuban Jewish population to number around 500 in 2020. The majority of Jews in Cuba live in Havana, the nation’s capital, though there are some small communities in other provinces.

Community Life

Jewish communal life in Cuba is well organized, run by a committee composed of five leaders from the three communities representing Cuban Jewry before the state authorities. The Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, acts as the main facilitator of Jewish life on the island, and is where the Ashkenazi synagogue Beth Shalom has a modern building in the heart of Havana.

Due to the small size of the community, and the poverty that Cuban Jewry (and Cubans in general) face, the Cuban Jewish community has relied on the generosity of foreign aid and donations. This includes individual Jewish tourists, but also Jewish federations and organizations from the US and Canada. One of them is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has been actively and continuously involved in Cuba since the early 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintroduction of religious freedom, the JDC became the first American organization to be licensed to go to Cuba and work with the Jewish community there.

The JDC has also helped establish a small pharmacy in Beth Shalom, distributing drugs sent by the organization or taken by mission participants and tourists through the free distribution of medicines, a large library, a technology center, and a Sunday school. Cultural events, parties, and traditions are also celebrated through the JDC’s work.

To boost community life on the island, the JDC launched a series of programs that are still running to this day. They include chicken dinners for Shabbat, services for the festivities, Jewish summer camps, family camps, etc.

The Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba also has a choir and group of Israeli dances, both formed by the youth members of the Congregation. The Hebrew Union Synagogue Shevet Ajim contributed to the Hebrew Center's five scrolls of the Torah which are the oldest in Cuba. More recently, the Hebrew Community of Cuba participated in the Macabbiah Games in 2013 with an official delegation.

Religious and Cultural life

Despite the small and somewhat impoverished status of the Jewish community in Cuba, Jewish life is still well maintained. The Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba affiliated itself with the Conservative movement, and since then, all communities except the Orthodox Congregation Adath Israel, have also affiliated with Conservatism. Moreover, religious services are held on Friday evening and Saturday mornings and all High Holy Days and festivals are celebrated.

The Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, where the Ashkenazi synagogue Beth Shalom sits, has been renovated, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee; Adath Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue remaining in Cuba. None of the synagogues in the country has a Rabbi or a Chazzan (cantor); all services are conducted by the congregants themselves. Though Cuba does not have an official rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler (based in Chile) is considered the country’s de facto Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Szteinhendler travels to Cuba several times a year to perform various Jewish religious and milestone services.

In terms of religious identity, the size of Cuban Jewry has seen a high rate of intermarriage. Such couples are openly welcomed by Beth Shalom, and there is a focus on instilling a sense of Jewish identity in all members of the community, regardless of their ancestry. More significantly, there has been an increase in Jewish weddings, circumcisions, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.

Kosher Food

Some problems arise in accessing kosher food. There is only one kosher butcher shop in all of Cuba, located in Old Havana.

Jewish Education

Sunday school and activities for the younger are organized at the Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba - Beth Shalom Synagogue. In the community center, there is a community Sunday School for adults, as well as a school for teachers of Hebrew, which aims to increase the preparation of educators for their tasks. In addition, many young people attend the Majón Tikum Olam to learn Hebrew and Jewish history.


Despite the small size of the community, there is an impetus to foster and nourish a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Israel in the Jewish youth in Cuba. The Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba offers several activities and events, and B’nai Brith also actively helps to provide relief to Cuba’s Jewish community while providing young Cuban Jews with a link to Judaism throughout the world.

Relations with Israel

Since the establishment of Israel, relations between Cuba and Israel have been turbulent. Cuba has constantly blacklisted Israel diplomatically for perceived aggressions against the Palestinians. Recently, there have been talks of restoring diplomatic relations between both nations and in 2016, the Minister of Culture of Israel and the Head of the Latin America and the Caribbean Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel visited the island. There is currently no Israel embassy or consulate in Cuba.

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