To be a Jew in Cuba

“We want to see Cuba before it changes.”

That phrase suddenly has made Cuba a tourist Mecca. If Raul Castro sticks to his word and leaves the presidency of Cuba in 2018, what Cuba will become is anyone’s guess. So, before whatever the future brings, everyone wants to see the colorful antique cars that have been renovated countless times since the United States’ embargo. They want to see the crumbling, colorfully painted facades of what an observer can tell was stunning Old and New Havana, a city meant to house 600,000 people, but is now home to two million.

My wife, Miriam, and I went to see the Jews and the amazing array of arts that Cuba’s government supports, despite its being bankrupt.

The trip to Cuba we went on actually was a mission to the Jews of Cuba, sponsored by the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York. We chose this trip because it offered far more than sightseeing and a passing engagement with Cuban Jews. The trip was accompanied by scholars of the Jewish Cuban community’s past and present, and specialists in the indigenous Cuban music and visual arts. Different representatives of the Cubans we met, whether Jewish or not, had one thing to say about the relationship between non-Jewish Cubans and Jewish Cubans: there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. And it’s true.

According to the Torah, we are a stiff-necked, stubborn people. When it comes to Cuban Jewry this is a compliment, not a criticism. We can look down on what is left of Cuban Jewry and deny they are even Jewish, if traditional Jewish law is the determining factor. We can blame them for a sky-high 90 percent intermarriage rate, if we choose. We can deny they have a future because of their numbers.

We who went to visit them, however, came away humbled and moved by Cuban Jewry’s stiff-necked unwillingness to give up their heritage, their identity, and their faith in the face of all the discouraging facts and figures that surround them.

As odd as it may sound to us in flush-with-Judaism Bergen County, Cuban Jews are far more heroic than we are. One thousand two hundred in number, the effort that they expend to remain Jewish and sustain Jewish life and organizations makes us privileged American Jews — many of us who get our Judaism on a silver platter and others of us who don’t bother to take what’s on that platter — look like midgets compared to these giants of Jewish loyalty.

What do these Cuban Jews actually do that leads me not only to praise them but to revere them?

When the 1991 constitutional changes that allowed for serious religious freedom in Cuba were issued, only a decimated Jewish community remained. The greater part of the Jewish community had fled; the Jews who stayed had virtually no Jewish memory at all. There were some old Jews who had some Jewish knowledge, and who could not or did not want to leave Cuba — but that meant Judaism would die out as soon as they did.

Enter the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The JDC came to Cuba and took on not only the physical support of the remnants of the Cuban Jewish community, but also undertook the creation of a religious school led by teachers from the Conservative Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamericano in Argentina. The Joint refurbished the crumbling El Patronato Ashkenazi synagogue. The synagogue soon turned into the offices of the Havana and national Cuban Jewish community. Adela Dworin is the “yiddishe mama” Jewish community president; she has the best fundraising (read: schnorring) skills I’ve ever experienced. She pointed out that young Cuban Jews know much more than their parents about Judaism. “Come to services erev Shabbat, and you’ll see,” she said. “It’s our youth who know how to lead them.” So we went.

El Patronato was filled with about 200 people. Yes, some were Jewish tourists who had El Patronato on their must-see list, but there were many Cuban Jews there as well, and the service was led by people ranging in age from 16 to their twenties. At the end a “choir” of about 50 young people led us in Adon Olam.

You could tell that this cadre was tight, deeply bound to each other. They were very clearly Jewish in their identity and knowledgeable about Jewish history and religious observance, and they are dedicated to Israel, which they visit on Birthright.

But were they Jewish?

Adela told us that once the JDC reorganized the Cuban Jewish community, a rabbi from Chile visited regularly. Through him, those who identified as Jews, but whose mothers were not Jewish, could convert formally to Judaism if they chose. At present, 60 percent of the Cuban Jewish community who were born to non-Jewish mothers have converted to Judaism, and many who identify as Jews see this as the final step in the full reclamation of their Jewish identity. Imagine what it takes for an 18-year-old man to be circumcised in order to fulfill one of the aspects of the conversion process!

There also were men who had not been circumcised during the time before religious freedom was restored. Adela described a mass brit milah event, where boys and men, ranging from toddlers to 60 year olds, underwent ritual circumcision with the help of several Argentinian mohalim. Unbelievably, after the surgery, and I assume before the anesthetic wore off, the older participants in this ritual formed a circle and danced, singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

Soon after the El Patronato was turned back into a synagogue, the school, community center, and offices of the Cuban Jewish community, El Centro Sefardi, the Sephardic synagogue, were repaired. That community, descendants of Turkish and Syrian Jews, soon created a senior center and Holocaust memorial and museum. On Shabbat morning several shomer Shabbat members of the mission went there. It should be noted that out of the five synagogues that existed in Havana, only three continue to operate: El Patronato (Ashkenazi, Conservative), El Centro Sefardi (Sephardi, Conservative), and Adath Israel (Ashkenazi, Orthodox).

El Centro’s service is interesting, to say the least. What the Sephardim remember of their forebears’ chants and melodies they sing as they once did. As is typical among Sephardic Jews, the entire service is recited out loud. When, however, no one remembers how a section of the service used to be sung, they use present-day Israeli or Ashkenazi melodies instead. Actually, many people who attend Shabbat services, and the communal dinners and lunches that follow them, attend both El Patronato and Centro Sefardi at various times, because Havana’s Jewish community sees itself as a single community. Ashkenazi and Sephardi refer to origins. A Jew in Cuba is anyone who identifies with the community and has Jewish ancestors, and they all have learned to support one another. (I wish we could say the same for American Jewry.)

For all that Havana’s Jews were amazing in terms of their services to the aged, to the education of the young and old, and to the sense of organized community they have created, nothing compares to the valor of David Tacher, the head of the Santa Clara Jewish community.

Singlehandedly, Tacher holds his tiny community of 22 Jewish families together. Tacher saw to reorganizing Jewish life for the Santa Clara Jewish families he knew, once religious freedom became a reality. Together they built a small synagogue, bet midrash and library, and community center. Soon, other Jews started to surface. Services are held every Shabbat and yom tov, and Tacher, who is an older, knowledgeable Jew, is “rabbi,” teacher, and arranger of all Jewish special events. His son has made aliyah because he wanted to marry a Jewish woman, and there were not too many choices left in Santa Clara, or in Cuba in general. Tacher’s son still lives in Israel, and his father visits him regularly.

When we were with Adela and representatives of Centro Sefardi, it was clear to us that they needed money and medical supplies to support the services that they were offering the Jewish community in Havana and throughout Cuba, and we gave.

We asked David Tacher what his community needed, obviously meaning financially. He replied, “Today a group like yours comes, and tomorrow another group will come. That is what we need. To know that Jews are thinking about us just as we think about them. To know we are not alone. We do not need your presents; we need your presence.”

When we asked him to speculate about the future of a community of 22 families, he responded, “We do not think about the past here, nor do we think about the future. We think about what we can do to preserve our heritage today. That is what we work for. Today.”

On Santa Clara’s Communidad Hatikvah’s roof is a lovely mural of Jerusalem, done in a somewhat Cuban style. When David Tacher showed it to us, our group was so moved by the whole experience we had with him that we spontaneously and appropriately began to sing Hatikvah.

He joined in. And why not? He is hope personified.

Moving deeper into Cuba, we visited the Cienfuegos Jewish community’s leader, Rebeca Langus, the daughter of a Sephardi family. Rebeca has made her living room into a room of living Judaism for the five—that’s right, five—Cienfuegos Jewish families. They hold services weekly and on the yamim tovim, without benefit of a rabbi or even a sefer Torah. But there is a library of Jewish books in Spanish, a variety of siddurim, and the necessary Jewish artifacts for observing the special days in the Jewish calendar.

We spent an hour with her and her son, David. Her other son, Danny, now 16, was in school. Danny had his bar mitzvah celebration in Santa Clara because the Langus family felt that a bar mitzvah should include a real Torah and more than 18 people to celebrate the event. Since the early 90s Rebecca has worked to bring Jewish practice back to Cienfuegos. David and Danny are b’nei mitzvah and have visited Israel. David also went on March of the Living and has won prizes for Cuba in the Israeli Maccabiah. He is a photographer, and of course, we bought his art.

In Cienfuegos the community prays and shares Shabbat meals, and holds on to its Jewish life like the caper bushes hold onto the stones of the Kotel.

This travelogue could go on, but it could not add to the praise and admiration my fellow travelers and I feel for the Cuban Jews we met. Having met them, my greatest hope for American Jews is that we should merit to be as dedicated and determined as they are in keeping the flame of our Jewish identity alive.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."