Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Cuba’s Jewish Community is dwindling

Cuba’s Jewish Community is dwindling

In 2003, pictured above I visited Cuba under a Humanitarian Visa to provide assistance to the Jewish Community in Havana.
In 2003, pictured above I visited Cuba under a Humanitarian Visa to provide assistance to the Jewish Community in Havana.

Today the Cuban Jewish community is struggling to stay a float. Its struggle for survival has been tied to Israel and American Jewish relations. Until the 1960’s, the Jewish community in Cuba enjoyed strong relations with the American Jewish community and Israel, and numbered nearly 30,000. Today, Cuban relations with the Israel and the American Jewish Community are particularly strained. This has negatively impacted the Jewish community in Cuba, which now numbers only above 1,000.

American Jewish-Cuban relations were vital in the construction of the Cuban Jewish community. Following the Spanish-American War, American Ashkenazi Jews established plantations and businesses on the Island. Until the 1960’s, American Jews were heavily invested in the growing Casino and Tourism industry in Cuba. In 1906, American Jews founded the first Shul on the Island, United Hebrew Congregation, a reform temple. The year 1906 is considered to be the birthdate of the island’s congregational community.

At the same time, Cuba established strong relations with both the local Jewish community and the fledging Jewish State of Israel. Cuba appointed a Cuban Jew consul to Palestine as early as the 1930s, over a decade before Israel’s independence . Cuba celebrated its Jewish community and strong relations with Israel at its 50th year anniversary of independence in ‘52.

This changed overnight in ‘59 during the Communist take over. Relations with American Jews were immediately severed. Many American Jews involved in Cuba’s casinos, businesses and vacation industries found themselves out of a high investment. United Hebrew Congregation, shut their doors. American Jews were forced out of Cuba. All assets become part of state owned enterprises.

Relations with Israel were fabricated only to create an allusion of “socialists of the world unite”. The era of the Communist Revolution distanced itself from American Jews and “Jewish” Israel. In 1967 relations fell apart and in ‘73 the country expelled Israeli diplomats and the embassy was state possessed.

The events of the Communist revolution negatively impacted the Jewish population of Cuba. Jews, a bourgeois group, were perceived early on as a threat to the revolution. In the 60’s many were sent to forced labor camps in the country. Jews were restricted in religious life and economically persecuted. Following the Communist Revolution, over 90% of the local Jewish population fled mainly to the United States and South America.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, opinions in Cuba began to shift. Paralleling the “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” era in the Soviet Union, that culminated in Jewish emancipation from Soviet bondage, Cuban Jews and other religious groups saw a window of time when religious expression began to be tolerated.   Restrictions on immigration to Israel for Cuban Jews were lifted and more Jews left Cuba for Israel during Operation Cigar in 1993.

This was a time of increased Israeli-Cuban relations. This was unprecedented, given almost 50 years of stagnant relations since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Cuba, along with the Soviet Union, began to distance itself from Israel. Fidel Castro invited the Chief Rabbi of Israel to visit in 1994. Israel also took up opportunities to invest in the emerging citrus industry in the 90’s.

This was also a time when revitalization of American Jewish-Cuban relations blossomed. Every year more and more American Jews trickled into Cuba under Missionary Visas. These people helped the community in Cuba.

At the turn of the 21st century there at least four functioning Synagogues including Adath Israel (Orthodox), Havana’s Synagoga Beth Shalom (formerly Conservative), and Centro Safardi (Sephardic), Communidad Hebrea Hatikva (Conservative). There were many Havurah groups established across the island in the time following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2003, I visited the Jewish community of Cuba under a Humanitarian Visa to help revitalize the local Jewish community.   I traveled with four others and together we brought 88 lbs. of humanitarian aid into Cuba. These supplies included OTC medications, bandages, medical supplies, nitride gloves, rubbing alcohol, syringes, etc.

Our mission was dedicated to revitalizing Havanas Synagoga Beth Shalom. Beth Shaloms Synagogue was among the most fascinating synagogues I have davened at. Inside the synagogue pictures of Fidel Castro hung on every wall. Cuban flags adorned the synagogue alongside the Israeli flags. The congregation appeared to publicize itself as a Conservative synagogue. However, when speaking in Spanish to its members, many identified it as Reform or currently unaffiliated as there is no Rabbi serving in leadership positions for any of the Congregations on the Island.

The Havana Synagoga bolstered its Jewish community education program. It appeared in 2003 to be active with a large number of youth. It included an extremely diverse crowd of mixed marrano—negro-mestizo-polanco-turco Jewish heritages. Outside the shul, an elderly couple, who identified themselves as having been Jewish refugees who escaped from Europe solicited donations and Tzedaka from visitors every day.

The era of Jewish revival in Cuba took two steps forward and one step back since the collapse of the Soviet Union until today. The two steps forward being the revitalization program of the Jewish community adopted post Soviet era in the 90’s and early 00’s. The one step back being: reemerging anti-Israel sediment, troubling increases in censorship directed against the Jewish community and the 2009 imprisonment of Alan Gross.

Cuba’s rhetoric about Israel has changed since the 90’s. Recently in 2014, Castro delivered one of his typically longwinded speeches comparing Israel’s Gaza War to Genocide. Worse yet, he also in late 2014 accused of Israeli-US cooperation in the creation of ISIS. The notion of ISIS being a Jewish controlled organization has become a rallying point to classical Anti-Semites.

Since the imprisonment of Alan Gross, conditions have dramatically worsened for the Cuban Jewish community.   Just a few years ago, many American Jews visited the community and contributed to the revival. American Jews are especially afraid to travel to Cuban. Jewish Missionary programs have virtually died out. As Alan Gross’s health deteriorates, the Jewish community has been caught in the crosshairs of turbulent US-Cuban relations.

I still remain in contact with some members of the Cuban Jewish community today. However, in the past years since Alan Gross’s arrest communication has been strained. I fear stricter methods of censorship have targeted the Jewish community, further de-fostering the once vibrant Jewish life in Cuba.

Today, there are just over 1,000 members of the Jewish Cuban community. Every year this number grows smaller. Low birth rates, a growing elderly Jewish population, no functioning rabbinical leadership and worsening conditions are attributed to this. Increasingly, many either try to live Jewish elsewhere or seek faith via a different venue.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.