On Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of returning from a nine-day visit to Cuba. Sixteen members of our community traveled to Cuba to see the sights, but more importantly to make personal connections with the Jewish community there and provide needed humanitarian and medical supplies. We brought with us eyeglasses, over-the-counter medications, toiletries, adult diapers (generously donated by Cedar Sinai Park's distributor), children’s art supplies, and numerous other needed materials.
This was my fourth visit to Cuba, with my first being in 1998. It was amazing to see the changes and development in the country, yet many of the hardships remain. Food is more prevalent on the island, yet rations continue. People seem to be able to buy newer clothes instead of wearing “hand me downs” that seem to go from person to person over many years. One still sees buildings that once proudly stood in beautiful colors with magnificent architectural designs crumbling. And, today, the average Cuban earns only $12 per month. Going to Cuba is like time travel back to the late 1950s. Following the Castro-led revolution in 1959, time seemed to stand still. In fact, you see hundreds of American-made cars dating back to 1959 and prior.
Our trip to Cuba was divided between Havana, the capital and largest city, and Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city across the island near Guantanamo Bay. Many people do not realize that the island is longer than the State of Florida. In both communities we learned about the history of the island, the heroes of the country, and, of course, the revolution. But most importantly, we met with the Jewish community.
Cuba, in 1959, had a peak of 15,000 Jews. Following the revolution, the majority of the Jewish community left the island and today they estimate there are 1250 Jews remaining. Sixty percent of the Jews live in Havana, with the remainder divided between nine other smaller Jewish communities. There are currently seven synagogues throughout Cuba and five Jewish cemeteries. The majority of Jews are from Sephardic background and 26% of the Jews are over the age of 60.
While in Havana, we visited the three synagogues in the community. The Patranato is the largest synagogue on the island, and really serves as the Jewish community center. Beyond a beautiful sanctuary, the Patranato has a large community pharmacy for the medical supplies, and offers numerous programs for seniors. There we met with Adela, the 73-year old president of the Cuban Jewish community, who shared, “We keep Judaism alive here because of visitors like you.”
We visited Adath Israel, the sole Orthodox synagogue on the island. Unfortunately, the congregation struggles to have a minyan each week, so they have created what is known as the “Cuban minyan.” They count all the men in attendance, the three Torah scrolls, and God to get to the number ten. The leader of the synagogue is also the island’s mohel and kosher butcher (Jews actually get an extra ration of meat each month).
We celebrated Shabbat at the Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba (Sephardic Synagogue). Beyond traditional Sephardic Shabbat services, we provided dinner for 80 members of the community. Amazingly, they shared that during the last week of December they celebrated the first Jewish wedding in 50 years. Not just one wedding – but seven weddings. Many of the couples had been married for years, but finally the non-Jewish spouses decided to convert to Judaism and thus were married under the chuppah in the synagogue.
But the highlight for me, and I believe many others in the group, was our visit to the Jewish community in Santiago de Cuba. The community totals 50 Jews (20 families) and receives visits from maybe 2-3 groups per year. There we visited the Hatikvah Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Cuba (founded in 1924). Due to declining numbers through the years, the synagogue eventually closed in 1979 and the building became government-owned. Until 1992, Jews then practiced in their own homes. It was that year that an Argentinean rabbi visited the community and brought the Jews together to re-learn their traditions. And, only three short years later the synagogue reopened and two Torah scrolls (one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic – the Sephardic scroll is from Turkey and dates back to the 1700s.) and the rekindling of the oil burning Ner Tamid (eternal light).
During our visit, some 18 members of the Jewish community came to greet us and join our group for lunch. They were the warmest people (as were the other Jews we met) who greatly appreciated our visit. To be honest, they just wanted to share “Jewish pride” with us. We learned their personal stories, including one gentleman who told me how his two children left Cuba. His son lives in Israel (moved there 8 years ago) and his daughter lives in Toronto (moved there 4 years ago). He has not seen either one of them since they left the country. I asked him about that and he told me, “They have the opportunity for a better life. Is it any different than what your grandparents did when they came to America?"
In many places, we see fewer people connecting with their Judaism. Maybe it is just too easy to be Jewish in America? In Cuba, they fight to be Jewish – it is who they are! It is who they want to be! And they are proud Jews.
Our special afternoon in Santiago de Cuba ended with everyone standing in a circle, hand in hand, singing “Hinei ma tovu manayim, shevat achim gam yachad” – this is from the first verse of Psalm 133, which reads, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
Our memorable experiences with our Cuban mishpocha (family) brought us all closer together. It was better than good and pleasant!