Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jews in Cuba

Florencia Arbiser • Cover Story
Published: 19 June 2009

CARTAGENA, Colombia – The recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States is being greeted with caution by some Jews in Cuba. In April, the Obama administration announced it was moving to ease restrictions on American travel to Cuba and money transfers to the island. Then, earlier this month, the 34-nation Organization of American States agreed to conditionally accept Cuba if Havana was interested. Cuban officials in the past have said they are not interested in membership and denounced the OAS, which receives about 60 percent of its funding from the United States, as a tool of American domination. “We would very much like to receive more visitors,” William Miller, the vice president of the House of the Hebrew Community in Cuba, one of the nine Jewish congregations in the island, told JTA. “Most Cuban Jews rarely travel abroad; the foreign Jewish visitors nourish our souls.” But Miller, who often receives Jewish missions from overseas, said the thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties may change the nature of visits to Cuba by American Jews.

American Jews are now allowed by U.S. law to visit Cuba only if they are traveling under the auspices of a licensed religious organization and their trip is ostensibly for religious purposes. They tour Jewish Cuba, meet with local Jews, share Shabbat dinner in Cuban homes, and even join in communal ceremonies. But if the religious requirement is eased, Miller said, American Jews coming to Cuba simply might head straight for Cuba’s Caribbean beaches, as they do in places like Mexico and elsewhere, and ignore the local Jewish community. “It is a challenge for us to see how we get involved with a potential increasing number of visitors,” Miller told JTA at a conference of Latin American Jewish leaders organized in Colombia last month by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We must work to spread the word to worldwide Jews that we exist and need contact with them,” David Prinstein SeƱorans, who lives in Cuba, told JTA at the conference.

Cuba has approximately 1,500 Jews and nine synagogues, three of which are in Havana. Before the Communist revolution of 1959, Cuba had about 15,000 Jews, but many left after Fidel Castro came to power. Some of those who stayed participated in the revolution, achieving prominence in Cuba’s fields of science and culture. For three decades following the revolution, religion was suppressed, leading to assimilation. But in 1992 the government eased restrictions on religion, and since then international Jewish aid agencies have built strong links to Cuba’s Jews. Their activities are centered on bolstering Jewish life on the island, including sending religious items to Cuba and helping its Jews with everyday needs.

The JDC has a permanent office in Cuba that helps run cultural, educational, and religious programs, including religious education for children and youth, bar mitzvah prep courses, Shabbat meal assistance, youth camps, and activities for the elderly. It even has a drugstore. Groups like the JDC and B’nai B’rith also coordinate missions to Cuba that each year draw hundreds of American Jews. “Several families from the United States, Canada, and France come to the island and feel committed to the Jewish community,” said Yacob Berezniak, a Cuban Jewish engineer and member of the Orthodox congregation Adath Israel in Havana.

JDC’s executive vice president, Steve Schwager, said he was not concerned that the personal ties would suffer if travel restrictions were eased. “I am confident that Jewish interest and visits with Cuban Jews will not be diminished by political changes,” he said. Cuba’s Jews remain desperately poor by Western standards, but thanks to the aid of Jewish agencies overseas, they are in a better position than most Cubans. B’nai B’rith provides food and medical assistance in Cuba. One of the group’s current projects includes installing a filter for potable water at Adath Israel. Panama’s Jews send kosher food to Adath Israel. London-based ORT runs a language lab and provides computer training at the House of the Hebrew Community.

Though Cuba does not have diplomatic ties with Israel, Cuban Jews say their community has good ties with the government, which is now led by Castro’s brother, Raul. For example, the government grants requests by Cuban Jews to leave the country to attend Jewish-related gatherings. Eduardo Kohn, the Latin American Affairs director of B’nai B’rith, says the community’s good ties with the government are based on the fact that the Jewish community is involved in religious and cultural activities but never takes part in political issues. Anti-Semitism is virtually unheard of in the country. “As a Jew, I’ve studied in school and at Havana University with my kippah and never had to face a hostile situation,” Berezniak said. “I walk calmly in the streets and I am accepted by my neighbors.

“Cuba is a peculiar country. Anti-Semitism does not exist,” he said. “Unlike other places in the world, we don’t need guards in the Jewish buildings.” Fernando Lapiduz, the JDC’s representative in Cuba, said he is reserving judgment on what Obama’s change in approach might mean for Cuba’s Jews. “We will have to see how this develops day by day,” Lapiduz said. “We might not perceive such a big impact.” Berezniak echoed that sentiment. “It is hard for me to see any remarkable change in our routine coming from Obama’s announcement,” he said.

Jewish Group back from ‘eye-opening’ trip to Cuba

Josh Lipowsky
The Jewish Standard, Cover Story
19 June 2009

Howard Brown of Cresskill wanted to go somewhere he hadn’t been before. He decided on Cuba. But the United States has had an embargo on the small Communist country for decades, preventing trade and travel — except for humanitarian reasons. Brown called Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation Northern New Jersey, to discuss sending a mission to the island nation to learn about and help the small Jewish community there. “I’ve never been to Cuba and I decided to go,” said Brown, who with his wife Nancy was among the trip’s co-chairs. “I felt like a lot of people who went on the trip would like to see how the Jewish community is surviving and what we can do to help out.”

Fourteen people signed up to go — although one couple had to turn back in Miami because of illness — and UJA-NNJ’s Charish accompanied them. From May 20 through 25, the group toured the country’s small Jewish community.
“It was absolutely eye-opening,” Charish said. “Here’s a community that experienced almost 30 years where Judaism was repressed and now the spark has been reignited.” Before Fidel Castro rose to power, some 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba. Many had thought of Cuba as a stop-off along the way to America but ended up staying. Within 20 years of the 1959 revolution, however, the Jewish population dropped to 800. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s religious groups once again began to grow. “It was a beautiful thing,” said Jodi Epstein of Alpine. “I didn’t realize they were keeping [Judaism] alive there or that they were allowed to.”

Today, Cuba’s Jewish community is made up of approximately 1,500 people, about 1,000 of whom live in or around Havana. (See related story.) There are no rabbis and no communal kosher supervision. The capital city has three synagogues: Orthodox, Conservative, and Sephardic. Adath Israel, the Orthodox synagogue, maintains a kosher butcher, as well as the country’s only mikvah. The Patronato, the Conservative shul, is home to an extensive Jewish library, a pharmacy, a community center, and a Hebrew school started in 1992 that now has 50 children. The Sephardic Hebrew Center was founded in 1954 and hosts a community Sunday school for adults as well as a Hebrew teachers’ school. “We couldn’t believe the progress the Jewish community is making,” Brown said. He recalled singing and dancing with some 50 children at the Patronato’s Hebrew school on Sunday.

“They were just adorable,” Epstein said. “It made me see how it took very little to make the children happy. Just having us there made them very happy.” At the Patronato, the group learned from Adela Dworin, the synagogue’s president, that a van that brings people to the center had been funded by Bill and Maggie Kaplen, local philanthropists known for their contributions to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, among other institutions. “I felt terrific when I heard that,” Epstein said. “Maggie and Bill are very generous people.”

According to Robert Miller, UJA-NNJ’s director of missions, the van will pick some people up at 4 in the morning on Saturdays and bring them to the center where they will have breakfast, services, lunch, and then other activities. “That shows a tremendous amount of dedication,” Miller said. “You have to throw out from your mind what the conventions are because of the different system that exists there.” Epstein had been encouraged to go on the trip by her friends, the Browns, but also by her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Englewood Cliffs, who had been to Cuba almost 10 years ago with a federation mission. “She was telling me how they lived in a time warp there,” Epstein said.

The average Cuban earns $20 to $30 a month and food is rationed. During Shabbat dinner at the Patronato, the group learned that the chicken dinner was the only source of protein all week for many of the attendees. “It’s a black hole to a lot of people,” said Miller, who organized but did not participate in the trip. “They are going back 50 years in some ways.” Before the trip, the Cuban community gave the federation a wishlist of necessities, including sun block, vitamin A, deodorant, mosquito repellant, and sneakers. Miller recalled that one participant asked him what size sneakers to buy. “I said, ‘They’re not expecting you to buy anything, they’re expecting it to be used,’” Miller recalled.

According to government regulations, religious groups must commit to undertake only those activities “that are consistent with U.S. foreign policy.” These include “attendance at religious services as well as activities that contribute to the development of a Cuban counterpart’s religious or institutional development.” “It was unlike anything we’ve ever done or contemplated because of [other] government restrictions,” Miller said. Before the federation could make any travel arrangements — booking flights, hotels, or even settling on dates — Miller had to wait for the U.S. government to send a special license that would permit travel to the embargoed country on humanitarian grounds. The mission could depart only after approval, which meant the dates were left fluid. Yet in order to apply, Miller had to submit an exact list of all the participants, who waited to learn when they might go. The license came through in the end of March, and Miller quickly got the group together.

He had hoped for a bigger number, inasmuch as the license covered a group of up to 25, but he noted that the advertising essentially had to be done through word of mouth because of government restrictions. Miller worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has an office in Havana and sponsors the country’s only chazzan, to organize the trip. Steven Schwager, CEO of the JDC, said that typically, there is one trip a month from the U.S. Jewish community to Cuba through JDC or the federation system. JDC has played a strictly non-political role in the country since the early 1990s.

“These trips strengthen the connection between the Cuban Jewish community and other Jews around the world,” he said. “In addition, they can provide material support for those Jews living at or below the poverty line.” “We could tell that our visit meant a lot to the people that we visited,” Charish said. “The message was loud and clear that this community is not going to be isolated from the Jewish communities in the United States, even though there are no relationships between Cuba and the U.S.” UJA-NNJ’s travel license expires next May. Under its terms, the organization is permitted one trip every three months. Miller is already thinking about a second trip some time in December, which has excited participants eager to return. “I think the future holds a lot for [Cuba’s Jews], especially if there are more missions like ours who keep going to Cuba,” Epstein said. “I think we give them hope and eventually when Fidel Castro dies and Raul Castro dies, it’ll be a free country.”

For more information on this and upcoming trips to Cuba, call Miller at (201) 820-3954