I have just returned from leading a trip to Cuba.
We spent a week in Havana exploring the city’s Jewish and secular culture. The Jewish community was first established in Cuba in the 1920s when many Jews fleeing Eastern European persecution ended up there.
During, and especially after, the Second World War, many Jewish refugees found their way to Cuba. At the community’s height, there were 15, 000 Jews there, mostly centred in Havana. There were many synagogues, Jewish schools and community institutions. In the centre of Havana’s old city you will find Hotel Raquel – a hotel originally built to cater to the Jewish community. It is a beautiful five-star hotel that is completely decorated with Jewish art and symbols. Truly amazing!
During the communist revolution, about 90 per cent of the Cuban Jewish community left the island. Many had fled from communism and were unwilling to once again live under its ideology. Large numbers of them settled in the U.S. More recently, there have been significant numbers who have made Aliya, building their lives in Israel.
Our group had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Jewish community. They told us that in Cuba they have never felt persecuted; that anti-Semitism is all but absent.
When the revolution began, participation in religious life was seen as potential competition to the people’s allegiance to the government. But, for the past few decades, that seems to have changed. The Jewish community is now very small, but incredibly vibrant! Beit Shalom, the largest of Havana’s three congregations has restarted its congregational Sunday school. They have a thriving youth program. We joined them for Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday, and the services were primarily led by the youth.
But maintaining Judaism in Cuba is not easy. They depend on donations from communities like ours. Did you know that Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA provides Passover food for Cuba? Each year, for more than half a century, we have been sending a container full of Passover food to make sure the community can celebrate Pesach. When our group went to Cuba, we brought medical supplies, treats and gifts and we sponsored the Shabbat evening meal.
The synagogue is entirely run by volunteers. There is no rabbi in Cuba, except those who come and visit from time to time. Yet their Judaism is vibrant and enriches the lives of their members. I am looking forward to our next trip!