(JTA) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting U.S. president to the island in 88 years, was also a milestone for the small Cuban Jewish community of about 1,500 people.
“We are living a transcendental, historic moment. We have hope and very high expectations following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States,” David Prinstein, vice-president of the Cuban Jewish community, told the Agencia Judía de Noticias, following Obama’s visit which ended on Tuesday. “It’s a unique moment for both the Cuban people and for a great part of the American people.”
Obama’s three-day visit focused on deepening long-neglected commercial ties between the United States and Cuba, but also drew a harder line on human rights abuses by the Castro government. Just hours before Obama’s arrival, Cuban authorities arrested more than 50 human rights activists at the weekly Ladies in White protest outside Havana.
Prinstein praised the recent achievements in areas such as business travel, trade and tourism following the relaxed U.S. embargo on the island. However, American Jews never stopped visiting Cuba, he said. Havana’s three synagogues, two Jewish cemeteries, a Shoah exhibition and religious services are widely visited.
Last month, Latin American young adults aged 25-40 interested in Jewish culture, education and leadership met in Havana for the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship seminar sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. It was the first time that the event took place in Cuba since 1959.
Jews first arrived in Cuba as conversos, Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism who secretly continued to practice Judaism, sailing with explorer Christopher Columbus, who landed on the largest Caribbean island in 1492. The Jewish community remained modest until the early 1900s and significant waves of immigration raised the Jewish population in Cuba to nearly 25,000. However, nearly 95 per cent of Jews left Cuba for the United States – mostly to Miami – after the arrival of Fidel Castro and his implementation of a communist government.
An estimated 1,500 Jews remain in the country today, according to the Latin American Jewish Congress. Several hundred also have since immigrated to Israel.