Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cuba's few Jews enjoy a resurgence

You wouldn't think there are many Jews in Cuba, and you'd be right -- maybe 1,500, by one estimate. But, Cox News Service reports, the small community is making a comeback, especially in the post-Fidel era.


Cox News Service, Sun, May 11, 2008
HAVANA, Cuba - The synagogue has been proudly and lovingly restored. Services that for the past 40 years attracted only a handful are now brimming with new members. The youth group is popular and active and the Sunday school for children attracts dozens each week. But best of all for Adela Dworin, curious Cubans have started returning to the Jewish library here in numbers. Many are descendants of Jewish families who have suddenly come alive to their history, intent on learning more about their religious traditions. After languishing - like all organized faiths - following Cuba's 1959 Revolution and Fidel Castro's adoption of a communist government that discouraged religious practices, Cuba's tiny Jewish community is thriving again.
Daniel Motela, 28, leads a 200-member Jewish youth organization. "Many of them come and enjoy the group activities," he said. "But I think most come to continue their family traditions and learn more about the Jewish faith." Cuba now boasts three synagogues and a community center, along with small pockets of followers around the island. Several dozen Cubans with Jewish roots have converted, including adult men who agreed to the Jewish circumcision ceremony. The Sunday school now routinely draws 60 children each week. The community still lacks a full-time rabbi, but is supported by rabbis from other Spanish-speaking countries who visit frequently.
Although still tiny in number on an island with a population of 11 million and deep Catholic roots, Cuba's Jewish community's rebirth seems to have assured Jewish traditions will live on here.
"At one point we were down to about 800 Jews in Cuba but now it's back to about 1,500," said Dworin, a cheerful, intelligent woman who speaks perfect English and serves as president of Cuba's Jewish Community. "Now we are celebrating all the holidays." The community's revival can be traced to the 1990s, when Castro eased the official line discouraging religious worship. The change came amid Cuba's crisis sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the island's loss of billions in annual subsidies from its long-time communist patron.
Castro met with leaders of all the island's faiths, reversing a long-standing prohibition on Communist Party members joining churches. The religious re-awakening culminated in the 1998 visit by Catholic Pope John Paul II, but Dworin recalls with pride that the Cuban leader did not ignore the Jews. At a meeting with religious leaders, "I shook hands with (Castro) and I asked if he could visit the synagogue," Dworin said. "We didn't tell our people we might be having a special visitor, so they were astonished when he came. He gave a speech and was very kind. It was a big honor."
Dworin, in her 60s, always remained active as a Jew, but recalls the long years when the community's numbers dwindled. At times not even enough male members attended services to create a quorum. It was a challenging reversal after what had been an amiable, if brief, history of Jews in Cuba. The community traces its roots back to 1906 when the first Jews arrived in Cuba, many from the U.S., who came to grow sugar and tobacco. Their numbers swelled in the 1930s as anti-Semitism flared in Europe in the lead-up to World War II, and continued growing as the war broke out and Hitler's Nazi Germany began the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
"My father came to Cuba in 1920 from a town that is now in Belarus," Dworin said. "Like most Jews, he wanted to go to the U.S., but there were quotas and it was almost impossible to get a visa. He didn't even know where Cuba was." Most of the European immigrants were poor, and many found work in Cuba as peddlers, selling items door-to-door in the streets of Havana. Over the years, many prospered, with Dworin's father first opening a clothing store and eventually a clothing factory. As Cuba's Jews gained success, they encouraged their children to become professionals, doctors and lawyers with skills that would support them no matter the vagaries of economics or politics. Dworin herself studied law, but eventually became a librarian overseeing the Jewish community's books and historical treasures.
Most of Cuba's Jews supported Castro's Revolution, she said, hoping it would bring an end to the widespread corruption that beset the island under dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. But when Castro's government adopted communist ideals and began confiscating private businesses and properties, most Jews fled, many to the U.S. "But they didn't leave because of anti-Semitism," Dworin said. "In Cuba the behavior of the people toward the Jews was always very nice. There was never any persecution. I decided to stay because I always felt like a Cuban, proud of being born here, very Cuban and very Jewish."
The long years that followed were difficult, but Dworin remained optimistic. When Castro met with religious leaders in the 1990s and reversed the state's discouragement of organized religion. Dworin and others, including Dr. Jose Miller, began seeking out Cubans with Jewish roots. Most of the island's Jews by then had married outside the faith, stopped attending services and lost touch with Jewish traditions. With the help of American and international Jewish support groups, the small number of faithful in Cuba began rebuilding their membership and refurbishing their facilities.
"I cried a lot when we re-opened the big sanctuary in 2000," Dworin said, noting that the extensive remodeling job was supported by American Jewish groups. "For so long we used the small chapel, but we grew so much we no longer had enough room for services there."

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