Published On: Thu, Jan 29th, 2015

Changes Bring Glimmer of Hope to Cuba’s Tiny Jewish Community

cuban synagogue

A month after the United States and Cuba announced renewed diplomatic relations after more than five decades of mutual recrimination and mistrust, it remains unclear how rapprochement will change things for Cuba’s Jewish community, which has about 1, 500 people, JTA said.

“If it will be better for Cuba, it will be better for Jews in Cuba as well, ” said Ida Gutzstat, executive director of the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, a community center attached to the Sephardic synagogue in this city’s Vedado neighborhood, the news agency said.

Already there has been some easing. Americans — including the thousands of Jews who fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution — now can send remittances of $2, 000 every three months to Cubans, four times the previous limit, the report said.

While Cuban Jews endure the same depressed conditions as other Cubans, surviving on monthly food rations and salaries that rarely exceed $40 per month, the community as a whole is the recipient of largesse most Cubans can only dream of, according to JTA.

Cubans generally have restricted Internet access, but computers at Beth Shalom are wired, and the synagogue’s youth lounge contains a PlayStation and Nintendo Wii. Financial support from humanitarian organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has operated in Cuba since 1991, enables Beth Shalom to provide community members with meals on Fridays and Saturdays — often non-kosher grilled chicken or canned tuna, followed by coconut ice cream. The synagogue office houses the community’s pharmacy, which twice a week dispenses free medicine supplied by Jewish tourists and aid organizations. While heath care is free in Cuba, over-the-counter drugs are rationed for ordinary Cubans, the report said.

Adela Dworin, president of Beth Shalom and the Jewish community’s de facto government liaison, said that Cuban Jewry is sometimes hamstrung by its financial dependence on aid groups that earmark funds for individual projects, complicating where synagogues can allocate donations, JTA said.

“It would be better to send to us directly, ” Dworin said, according to the news agency. “We can’t depend our whole lives on Americans and Canadians. We must become more independent.”

The Jewish community also enjoys the support of the regime. President Raul Castro twice has attended Chanukah celebrations at Beth Shalom. The country has two other synagogues in Havana and smaller congregations in the provincial towns of Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Guantanamo, the report said.

Cuban Jewry’s greatest privilege, though, is also one of the community’s biggest challenges, according to JTA.

Ordinarily, Cubans are barred from emigrating without special permission from the government. Yet since 1992, when the Cuban constitution was changed to accommodate freedom of religion, a government concession to stave off unrest once Soviet aid ended, Jews have been allowed to leave for Israel. In 2013, 72 Cuban Jews made aliyah, according to Israel’s Absorption Ministry — a considerable number given the size of the community, the report said.

Most of the emigrants in recent years have been Jews in their 20s and 30s, few of whom remain in Cuba. Elianas Quinones, a 19-year-old medical student, said 20 to 30 of her friends have immigrated to Israel in recent years, the news agency said.

Though emigration continues, there has been a steady influx of converts into the community — mostly Cubans from intermarried families who have discovered their Jewish heritage since the early 1990s. Visiting Conservative rabbis from across Latin America have helped convert them in mass ceremonies, the report said.

Dworin said she knows of at least 10 more people who want to begin the conversion process but can’t because Cuba does not have its own rabbi. She estimates that fewer than 20 of the country’s Jews were born to two Jewish parents, JTA said.

For the few Jews here who keep kosher, they can receive beef rations instead of pork. The thick-bearded Jacob Berezniak-Hernandez, leader of the nearby Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel and a trained kosher butcher, distributes the meat from a small Old Havana storeroom, according to JTA.

“Cubans deserve a better life, with more materialistic things and more freedom, ” Dworin said. “If the economic situation in the country improves, we hope people will stay.”



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