Cuba

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population 2016,” Cuba is home to between 500 and 1,500 Jews. Comprised of three main communities: the Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Orthodox. In December 2006, the Jewish community of Cuba celebrated its 100th anniversary, and after a century of struggles and triumphs, Cuban Jews finds itself in a stable, revitalized condition where they are able to practice Judaism freely. Like the general population, Jews in Cuba 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

Telephone: 53- 78328953
Fax: 53- 78333778
Email: beth_shalom@enet.cu; patronato_ort@enet.cu
Website: www.facebook.com/PatronatodelaCasaComunidadHebreadeCuba

President: Adela Dworin

CEO:    David Prinstein



History

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 who 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, a number of American Ashkenazi Jews settled in the country. They largely 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 own community in the years preceding World War I. Around 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, the US’s strict immigration policy during this period 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 of some these new immigrants saw the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) 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, it 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 helped by providing work, money and where there was a children's circle. On the other hand, since 1929 the Zionists maintained the Zionist Union of Cuba, an important force during the 20s and 30s, when imminent poverty was suffered, which broke up in several parties in the 40s.

The Cuban Jewish community was relatively stable in the post-war years, until the 1959 Revolution, which saw the establishment of a Castro-led socialist state. Almost all of Cuba’s Jews fled the country following Fidel 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 first 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 Jews, along with other religious groups, 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-Zionists sentiments pervaded Cuban society. Cuba allowed Palestinian terrorist camps to operate on the island, published anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli propaganda, and banned books by 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 young people who did not want to get involved in religion, attended   synagogue, and as a result, many synagogues were closed or abandoned. In 1973, Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel and later voted for the infamous resolution stating that “Zionism equals racism.” Throughout the 1980s Jewish life was largely invisible. In the early 1990s, Fidel Castro secretly allowed more than 400 Jews to emigrate to Israel in what is code-named “Operation Cigar.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union and economic difficulties caused by the US embargo, saw Cuba adopt some 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 followed a trend of growth and rejuvenation and is recognized as a religious minority in Cuba. Though the general economic disparity in Cuba affects Jews in the country, the thawing of relations between Cuba and the US has allowed Cuban Jews with family in America to receive some aid.

The years of the Holocaust

In the years preceding World War II and the Holocaust, 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 should arise, with the goal of having some influence in attempting to allow refugees into the country. Yet, the infamous case of the MS St. Louis in 1939 is indicative of the difficulties plaguing Jewish refugees. Cuba (as did Canada and, infamously, the US) denied the ship’s passengers entry into haven and eventually turned the ship away.

With that mind however, some Jewish refugees and survivors of the camps prior to, during, and after the war 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

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola “World Jewish Population, 2016” estimated the Cuban Jewish population to number between 500 and 1,500. 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 nineties. 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 5 scrolls of the Torah that 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 the Conservative Movement. 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 Chazan. 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 intermarriages. 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.

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 Center, the Patronato de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba’s community center, there is a community Sunday School for adults, as well as the school for teachers of Hebrew, which aims to increase the preparation of educators for their task. In addition, many young people attend the Majón Tikum Olam to learn Hebrew and Jewish history.

Youth

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

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.

Updated

August 2018

Receive news updates
in your inbox from the WJC