Exploring Jewish Cuba

Twenty-five volunteers from Congregation Shaare Emeth pull weeds at the crumbling Ashkenazi Jewish Cemetery.

BY JUDY KAPLAN, Special to the Light

Once glimmering like a glamorous Hollywood star, Havana today is wrinkled and worn, long past what a face lift could repair.

Formerly a luminary in the Caribbean, the bright light of Cuba’s capital city has gone out. What’s left is the veiled vision of once-magnificent mansions in the colonial style of architecture, with paint peeling in broad bands from formerly palatial facades. Through open front doors passersby can view the dingy, dark and deteriorating interiors.

What’s more, time appears to have come to a screeching halt on this island, which is just a 40-minute flight from bustling Miami. The estate-like homes and buildings have not seen a repair in years and vintage Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords and Cadillacs, all circa 1955, proudly putter down the roads in a time warp. Look! There’s Elvis! One expects the King to suddenly materialize. And, no one has heard of catalytic converters.

Havana’s decline didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken many decades: over 50 years since the Revolution, the fall of Batista, and the rise of the communist dictator, Fidel Castro (and now his brother Raul); almost 50 years since the United States embargo; 20 years since Russia, Cuba’s “sugar daddy,” collapsed.

Shrinking Jewish community

While the U.S. has posted a “keep out” sign to its citizens, it relaxed traveling restrictions to Cuba earlier this year, although it is still not effortless to get there. My trip with Congregation Shaare Emeth, a party of 25 members and non-members, entered on a religious license into Havana via chartered airline. Our mission: to bring medical, hygiene, food and clothing items to the Jewish community caught in an economic collapse and to help clean up the Jewish Cemetery.

Although the participants in the group were all well aware of how the Jewish community has dwindled, I don’t think anyone imagined what that actually would look like. From a thriving 20,000 Jews with homes and businesses in the 1950s, that number has declined to about 1,000 – between 800 and 1,200, according to several reports -most living in Havana.

We attend Sabbath services at the conservative Ashkenazi synagogue, The Patronato/Beth-Shalom, where a rabbi travels from Argentina to conduct services every several months. In between the rabbi’s visits, and during our visit, an articulate and dedicated young man leads the service.

Ken Birenbaum, Congregation Shaare Emeth board president, was most impressed with the Shabbat service.

“Except for the fact that the service was in Hebrew and Spanish (not English) I felt right at home,” he said. “It was wonderful to see the joyous faces of the Jewish youth singing, praying and fully participating in and helping lead the service, just like kids back in St. Louis.”

The Patronato also houses a small pharmacy where Dr. Rosa Behar dispenses limited amounts of medicines to both Jews and others in need. Even though health care is free (as is education) in Communist Cuba, medical supplies are frequently costly or unavailable. For instance, something as simple as an ACE bandage for a sprained ankle could not be found for one of our klutzy travelers (me!).

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Cuban doctors, on-loan from Cuba to work in another country (not the U.S.), have been able to later defect and enter the U.S. under a “special professional immigration act.” Earning the government-regulated $25 per month salary in their homeland, is it any wonder that physicians would want to leave? Workers in the tourism industry, thanks to tipping, enjoy higher incomes.

In a meeting with Adela Dworin, the charismatic president of The Patronato Synagogue, we learned about the invitation she extended to then President Fidel Castro several years ago to come to the synagogue for Hanukkah. He accepted saying, “…if Hanukkah is the revolution of the Jews, then, I will come.” Later the president invited Dworin to visit him when he “affirmed the importance of Israel to exist and decried Iran’s non-acknowledgement of the Holocaust.” This past Hanukkah Castro returned to The Patronato to light the first candle, wearing a kippah, recalled Dworin.

While regaling our group with her smiles and interesting stories, Dworin also reminded us of the tragic truth: not only is medicine in limited supply, but soap and toothpaste as well as food are difficult and costly to obtain. Several staples from the government ration books have recently been eliminated. For some, the synagogue’s Sabbath kiddush dinner constitutes congregants’ main meal of the week, she explained.

Our group also visited the Sephardic synagogue, Centro Sephardi. Forced to move from its large house of worship to a smaller one due to declining congregants, they hope to find a renter for their empty building. While the member-population dwindles due to immigration, particularly to Israel, the children and teens continue to gather in youth groups, having fun while keeping the faith. Often the Ashkenazi and Sephardi collaborate on various activities and celebrate holidays together.

As part of our mission we went to the Jewish cemetery whose sorry condition gives new meaning to “decrepit.” Chunks of marble have fallen from the tops and sides of the white stone monuments, collecting in haphazard piles of rubble throughout the hilltop. Thick, creeping weeds, ironic look-alikes to Wandering Jew, weave their way amongst a section of graves. Slipping on our garden gloves brought from home, we easily pull the invasive plants, leaving the area looking better than before we came. It’s amazing what 25 single-minded Jews can accomplish.

Just past the cemetery gate, one particularly tall monument caught our collective attention. This special marble marker is dedicated to the Holocaust. Here, at the hands of the Nazis, pieces of soap, made from Jewish human fat, are buried. Led by Shaare Emeth’s Rabbi James Bennett, we paused to say the ancient mourners’ Kaddish.

Cultural connection

It’s times like this when everyone feels awash with a global spiritual and cultural connection to Jews everywhere.

Both Cuban and Jewish is Washington University Professor of Spanish, Joseph “Pepe” Schraibman, who has traveled to Cuba 10 times, leading his group of Cuban Focus honor students as part of a year-long course on Cuban history, culture, literature, and music. His visits also afford him the opportunity to speak with Cuban-Jewish residents, learning first-hand the actual status of this complex and worsening situation and to bring medicine, clothing and whatever else is needed to the Jewish community. However, Schraibman doesn’t have an optimistic view for the remaining Cuban Jews: “The old ones want to live in Cuba and die there; the young ones want to leave-there’s no future for them there,” he said.

Although I spent only a short week in Havana, I agree with the professor – the sooner our landsmen leave, the better. But while they remain, they need our support. For more information on how you can help contact: B’nai B’rith International Cuban Jewish Relief Project: www.cubanjewishrelief.org or toll free, 877-222-9590.

Know before you go

Check new entry rules for religious institutions and universities

Pure tourist travel is still illegal

U.S. cell phones will not work

U.S. credit cards or checks are not accepted

U.S. currency must be exchanged in Cuba for CUCs

Only American Express and Visa Travelers’ checks are exchangeable

Banks’ exchange rate is plus 20%; some hotels exchange at 10%

Unused CUCs can be returned at an even exchange

Hotels with Five Stars are not; but they are better than Four Stars!

Do not drink the water

No special shots are required; check the CDC for new info

Bring insect spray with DEET for dengue fever protection

Remember: Cuba is a Third World country