In a country where decades of communism and an American embargo have left a seeming time warp of decaying buildings and economic stagnation, Cuba’s Jewish community is showing definite signs of revitalization.
That was the impression of participants in two local missions who recently returned with stories of a country where Jews, like much of the rest of the population, are poor but managing to thrive — with some help.
Members of the groups sent by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple said that Cuba’s Jews — who are estimated to number 1,500, most in Havana — enjoy a rich religious and cultural life, thanks in large part to the generosity of the American-Jewish federation system.
Despite the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions, the U.S. Department of the Treasury grants a special license for religious missions to bring aid to the island nation. Despite free health care, Cuba suffers from a critical shortage of drugs and medical supplies, and members of both groups were asked to bring donations of basic health items and medicines, including aspirin and allergy medications.
Another aspect of life in Cuba that took some of the visitors by surprise was that the country is virtually free of anti-Semitism. The synagogues in Havana “were totally unguarded because there was no threat to them,” said Michael Kaplan of Highland Park, who, with his wife, Helen, was among the 27 people on the March 8-11 mission organized by the Middlesex federation.
Kaplan had recently visited Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, where, he said, synagogues had to be heavily guarded. He said he had thought that in Cuba they would see “police on every corner, but we didn’t see too many police.”
He was also astonished by the openness they found. The people they met “weren’t really afraid to speak freely with the group,” Kaplan said.
While the Jewish community seems to enjoy a good relationship with the communist regime — both Raoul and Fidel Castro have attended a community Hanukka celebration — as to the future, “no one seems to know what will happen after the Castro brothers go,” said Kaplan.
Many of the services provided to the community come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the federation’s overseas partners, which also helped arrange the mission.
One highlight of the trip was seeing the community pharmacy at the Patronata, the main Jewish community center in Havana, where the mission members donated the medical supplies they had been asked to bring along.
Evan Wormser of East Brunswick said one gratifying aspect of the stay in Cuba was seeing how engaged the community was in Jewish life.
The 29-year-old, who accompanied his mother, Cindy, described the country as a whole as “being stuck.” The Jewish community, however, defied that description. In spite of widespread shortages and rationing, he said, it seems to be flourishing.
But the country they saw outside the Jewish community was a clear indication of the failure of the regime’s reign.
Being in Cuba, Kaplan said, reminded him of old-time photos of Caribbean nations and “just showed me that after more than 50 years of Castro, communism does not work. The only positive things I saw were the health plan and that education was available for those who qualify. There’s been absolutely no maintenance of those beautiful structures from the old days of Havana. They are in total decay.”
Kaplan was shocked to learn that a janitor makes a mere $22 a month, a doctor only $30, but he also witnessed “the first cracks in communism,” with recent decisions to allow homeowners to open restaurants and other small steps toward free enterprise.
“I think if Castro could stand up today he would say, ‘Our system has failed. Let’s start over with a democratic system,’” Kaplan said. “It was good to see the seeds of that starting.”
The federation group spent Shabbat at Havana’s Conservative Jewish Community Center Bet Shalom Synagogue, where 400 people turned out for Friday evening services. There are two other synagogues in the city, one Sephardi and one Orthodox.
On Saturday evening, “during Havdala, they were singing and dancing,” Wormser said. “Their children go to Hebrew school, they have soccer for the children, Israeli dancing, art classes, and other activities. It was so beautiful to see in a country of that size that the community is growing and thriving. They really don’t want to lose their Jewish identity.”
Even though a rabbi comes to the island only three or four times a year to officiate at services and life-cycle events, Wormser said, the level of observance and knowledge that he witnessed was surprising considering that many of the Cuban Jews only rediscovered their religious heritage in recent years.
“They were different colors and backgrounds,” said Wormser, “but they sang the same tune to Adon Olam.”
The 44 members of Anshe Emeth group who went on their synagogue’s first Cuban mission Feb. 5-13 found the experience so inspirational that the synagogue is already planning a second visit next year.
“We went because we knew about the reemergence of the community…,” said Rabbi Bennett Miller. “Many folks and groups have been providing moral support and financial aid, and we felt this was the time.”
In addition to Havana, the synagogue group visited with Jews in the towns of Santa Clara, Cienfuego, and Trinidad.
“We wanted to also go to the smaller communities that often don’t get the attention the others get,” said Miller. “We met with them, heard their stories, and prayed with them.”
Cuba’s Jewish community, he said, “has shown an awful lot of resilience, and I think it is our job to help them be ready should things change dramatically.”
The Anshe Emeth group visited schools, a baby clinic in Trinidad, a school in Havana, and two cemeteries that are also the sites of Holocaust memorials.
Congregation executive director Heather Kibel described the mission as “an amazing trip.” “We brought tzedaka and items we were told they needed,” she said. “Each participant bought 15 pounds of supplies to donate, including medicine, vitamins, batteries, hygiene products, school supplies, and even a wheelchair.”