January 2016

Coming of Age in Cuba’s Jewish Community

by Yaffi Spodek

Two dozen men from South Palm Beach County traveled abroad last year, just a 45-minute plane ride away from home, but they felt like they had entered another world when they landed in Cuba.

“We traveled less than 250 miles away, but back in time,” said David Pratt of Boca Raton, who chaired a mission to Cuba last January for the Men’s Division of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. “Right in the middle of Havana, a city that has not changed in over fifty years, we found a strong and resilient community of Jews who continued to teach our tradition and faith from generation to generation, despite limited resources and dire economic challenges. Jews in Cuba are few in number, yet abundant in spirit amid a cultural and religious rebirth.”

Close to 15 years ago, six Cubans celebrated their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the Patronato Beth Shalom synagogue, a rite of passage that most Jews take for granted nowadays. But for the small community in Havana, it marked the first time since 1964 that such an occasion was celebrated, replete with siddur and Tefillin, Torah reading and even a festive party. Times have certainly changed, and there have been over 100 B’nai Mitzvoth celebrations since, but these events are living proof of a developing Jewish community that could never have dreamed of such a vibrant religious life.

That rebirth has only been possible thanks to strong financial support from overseas agencies, in addition to groups traveling on missions, who come to personally connect with the community, bring vital supplies and make special contributions to meet needs they see on the ground. Much of Cuba’s Jewish growth and these missions have been facilitated by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC), which began helping in the early 1990s, once the Cuban government lifted its restrictions on religious practice.

“When we started, there were barely enough people to make a minyan, and now community members can lead prayers by themselves,” said Will Recant, Executive Vice President of the JDC, whose own daughter had the idea to create and sponsor the Bar and Bat Mitzvah training program in Cuba. “I’ve sat in meetings over the years with leaders of the synagogues and Jewish groups, and it’s been wonderful to witness the maturation of the Cuban Jewish community and a renewal of community life. They’ve become self-reliant and have a real voice of their own, understanding Jewishly what they want to do and need to do.”

David Prinstein, Vice President of the Patronato, has experienced that evolution firsthand: his older son was among the first to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in the Patronato, while his younger son received the first Brit Milah, and today his wife leads prayer services there. While those feats are rewarding, he acknowledges that there are significant challenges ahead.

"The JDC has worked with us for over 20 years, providing not only financial support, but also contributing to our educational and cultural programs, such as the Rikudim dance troupe and giving our youth the opportunity to participate in the Maccabiah sports games,” said Prinstein, who works on a variety of communal projects and often serves as the community liaison to the local government. “Our main challenge is to create communal programs that are connected to the next generation, and create incentives for people to stay and remain committed to the community, especially in current times. We are proud of the support we are receiving from our fellow Jewish communities, whether it’s from the United States, Canada or Mexico, and it’s necessary to continue to have their support, because without their help, it would be impossible to run any of these programs.”

There’s still a long way to go, and recently renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba provide a glimmer of hope.

“There have been no tangible effects since last year’s diplomacy changes, but there are hopeful expectations that the economy will improve their lives as Cubans,” Recant noted. “As Jews, they have good relations with the minister of religious affairs, so they are free to practice as they wish, but they live with the political and economic realities of the country.”

That reality is grim: though people are highly educated, the standard of living is low; the average salary is less than $20 a month and food is distributed through monthly ration cards. Internet access is limited but slowly becoming more available, thanks to the efforts of JDC and World ORT, both supported by our local Jewish community. The JDC-sponsored Shabbat chicken dinner program provides a free chicken dinner to close to 500 people every Friday night, a project that began in 1995 to provide some much-needed protein, as well as a festive meal to celebrate Shabbat and also draw people to the synagogue, and by extension, Jewish communal life. And it has worked.

The Patronato, one of several synagogues on the island, is much more than just a place where people come to pray; it is a vital hub of Jewish life in Havana, particularly for the younger generation. It serves as a Jewish Community Center (JCC), in addition to a computer center and pharmacy, which was opened by the JDC to provide common over-the-counter medications that are scarcely available in Cuba.

“Go into the Patronato and they sing Hebrew songs, just like you would see in any JCC or Hebrew school, and they have a youth program and teen program and even a dance troupe -- all the things that help them to further develop their Jewish identity,” said Alan Gross, a humanitarian aid worker who spent years working in the community.

Despite having spent five years unjustly incarcerated in Cuba, Gross remains positive about the Jewish community there. “The community is so warm and welcoming and they want to learn about their Jewish roots and acquire their Jewish identity,” he said. “As a Jewish communal worker, it’s easy to recognize the spirit and glue that keeps them together. It’s a beautiful thing and once it becomes easier to live there, the community will be thriving once again.”

Though the economic condition of the Cuban Jewish community is as precarious as that of the general population, there’s one significant disparity: the Jews have a North American and South American support system and Rabbis who visit regularly from Latin America, Argentina and Chile.

“The JDC is very active as is the World ORT program, especially now, as Internet connectivity becomes more common,” said Gross. “The Patronato has a computer lab, for adults and children to learn how to use computers, so they can learn how to compete in world markets. The increasing Internet access is a great opportunity for the Jewish community to catch up with the rest of the world and do groundbreaking work.”

The Cuban Jewish community wasn’t always this fragile. In the 1950s, before the revolution, its population numbered close to 25,000, though it has now dwindled to about 1,200 throughout the entire island. In recent years, many Cuban Jews procured visas through Canada and then either made Aliyah to live in Israel or settled down with family members in the United States, often in Miami and other parts of South Florida. But the Jews who remain are determined to preserve their Jewish identity and continue to develop the community. Even amidst the challenges, the small but spirited community is making strides, and still relies a great deal on the help they receive from abroad. But they are hopeful and believe that there is a bright future for them.

“One might think that the future is uncertain, but we are optimistic and we have to work for our continuity and to guarantee our existence forever,” said Prinstein.

With renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, it’s never been easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, whether it’s for humanitarian, cultural or religious reasons. The frequent visits also help pump money into the struggling economy, the Jewish community and small local businesses.

“With the opening of the embassies, it’s easier to get permits from the State Department to travel,” said Susana Flaum, Director of the Levis JCC Sandler Center in Boca Raton, who has led missions to Cuba since 2002. She often travels there two or three times per year and plans to take a group from Boca’s B’nai Torah Congregation in October. Though the focus of her trips is more cultural, the group always spends time with the Jewish community.

“Now when we go, we can take personal computers and we bring lots of supplies, including medicine, soap, shampoo and clothing for the Jewish community,” she said. “The community is more united now and we are more familiar with what they need.”

Earlier this month, Flaum’s group was able to stay for the first time at Varadero, a famous beach resort and spa that was previously restricted to American tourists. They visited other cultural and historical sites, including Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, many of which have been renovated and restored with the help of the JDC. Cuba is also home to a Holocaust exhibit in Havana and a smaller memorial in Santa Clara, believed to be one of the first established in the Western Hemisphere.

These missions are intrinsically valuable to the Cuban Jewish community to connect with those who support and encourage their religious growth.

“All these missions provide a vital link to the Jewish community that the Cubans appreciate,” said Recant. “The missions help the Cuban Jews view themselves as part of a bigger Jewish community.”

It’s also a great experience for those coming from abroad to get a glimpse into this small but vibrant slice of Jewish life, as Pratt reflected on his Shabbat experience last January: “During Havdala at Patronato, the familiar songs, food and personalities brought home the message that we’re all part of one Jewish family and our efforts really do make a difference in people’s lives.”