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 Señorans, 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.