Englewood–Robert and Irene Gottesman of Englewood were in Cuba with the Jewish community of Havana the day before Chanukah, at the moment Alan Gross, a Jewish American imprisoned in Cuba, was about to be released. Looking back, they may have been given a hint. “We were in a meeting with Adela Dworin, president of Havana’s Jewish Community,” Irene recalled, “and she said, ‘Chanukah is a time of miracles. Maybe there will be a miracle this year.’”
It is something of a miracle that Cuba’s Jewish community, decimated after the revolution, is now experiencing a revival of sorts. There are about 1,500 Jews in Cuba, down from 20,000 when Fidel Castro assumed power. The Gottesmans were invited by friends to participate in a mission to Cuba with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a Jewish humanitarian organization “caring for Jews in need and rescuing Jews in danger.” Michael Geller, JDC Media Relations Director, said that after Castro changed the constitution in 1991 to allow religious practice, Dr. Jose Miller, then president of the Jewish Community of Cuba, contacted the JDC to ask for help. They sent a rabbi, community worker and doctor to assess the situation and began developing programs.
Robert Gottesman said being in Cuba was like falling through a time warp to the 1950s. “Most of the cars are from the 1940s and 50s,” he said. “Some are beautiful, like showcase cars. They have figured out how to make them look original on the outside. Some of the most brilliant people in Cuba are the mechanics. They have to figure out how to keep those cars running.”
The absence of stores in Cuba comes as a shock, said the Gottesmans. There is almost no private enterprise. There are some farmers’ markets, and restaurants and barber shops set up in people’s homes. New clothing is obtained from friends who travel abroad and return. Electricity is expensive so nighttime lighting is poor. Transportation is difficult. Even bicycle riding is limited–the exertion in the hot climate uses up too much energy for the amount of food rationed; about 1300 calories a day per person, mostly in white rice and beans.
Havana has three operating shuls: Orthodox, Conservative and Sephardic. There is a 93% intermarriage rate in Cuba and most non-Jewish spouses affiliate with the Jewish community. The Orthodox shul, Adath Israel, has mostly older members, and is in one of the more neglected parts of Havana. Jacob (Yaakov) Berezniak is the lay leader and halachic authority of Cuba. He learned for four months in Israel under the tutelage of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and learned shechita so he could shecht meat and chicken for the community.
His father Abraham, who passed away in 1998, had been the shul leader since before the revolution and managed to maintain a daily minyan. He taught Hebrew and Torah to Yaakov, who had the shul’s first bar mitzvah in 15 years. Berezniak still keeps a daily minyan going, though he has to be flexible with the numbers, Robert said. “Sometimes, it’s five bodies, the four Torahs and Hashem.”
Communal Jewish life in Havana takes place at The Patronato, a Jewish community center with a Conservative shul. The JDC employs Spanish speaking community development and education professionals from South America who become part of the community fabric by organizing religious studies at Sunday School for adults and children, and coordinating activities such as Israeli dancing and challah baking for the senior citizens. All classes come with modest but nutritional snacks such as chocolate milk and a sandwich of mayonnaise and crackers.
The Patronato has a Kabbalat Shabbat service in Hebrew with lots of singing led by members of the community, the Gottesmans said. “We heard ‘Shabbat Shalom’ everywhere; people are very warm to visitors.” A Shabbat dinner with chicken, vegetables and potatoes is held in the activity room, but visitors who hold higher kashruth standards can bring their own food. The wine is strictly kosher and Robert Gottesman was persuaded to make Kiddush for 500 people.
On Shabbos morning, the three shuls stagger their services and follow with breakfast, beginning with Adath Israel at 7:30 a.m. “Jews can go to all three shuls–and have three good meals on a Saturday,” Irene said. Motzei Shabbos, the Patronato holds a Havdala service with a party and dancing afterwards. “I felt like I was in camp; it was just so warm and spirited,” Robert said.
Do people come to services for the spiritual lift or the food? Probably both. The average pensioner earns $12 a month. The best surgeon earns $75 a month. Food, aside from government rations, is expensive and scarce.
Medicine is also expensive and scarce, although health-care is free in Cuba. JDC missions usually bring medical supplies. “I couldn’t even buy a Band-Aid,” Irene said. The Patronato includes a pharmacy, open to Jews and non-Jews, to distribute medicine and aid.
Although Cubans are not allowed to come to the US, they are allowed to travel and immigrate to Israel. The Gottesmans said a group of 16 was making Aliyah the day after they left. Adela Dworin told them a story about meeting with a JDC board member, dressed in a well-worn t-shirt, who asked her if she could have one thing from him, what she would want. She said she wanted money for 50 kids to go to the Maccabi Games in Israel, and he said ‘Done.’ Eyeing his clothes, and clearly skeptical, she said, ‘I’m sorry to ask, but how can you help me with this request?’ He pointed to the logo of the Giants on his shirt and said, ‘See this? I own the team.’ Thank you, Steven Tisch.
Rabbi Steven Weill of Teaneck, Senior Managing Director of the Orthodox Union, also takes a group of donors to Cuba every year in conjunction with the JDC to bring supplies and support to the Jewish community. “They have created a warm community of educated individuals who have a love for Judaism,” he said.
He relayed another miraculous story. An elite member of the Cuban military was chosen to be a bodyguard to Fidel. His grandparents were Sephardic Jews from Turkey but his parents were devout Communists. His daughter began questioning him and became religious. She made Aliyah and now lives in Jerusalem. Although he can’t leave, she brought him back to his roots. He learns and teaches Jewish history, Hebrew, and Israeli history to young people and adults.
Is there a future for Cuba’s Jews? “If the country opens up economically, Jews could be moving there,” Rabbi Weill said. “There is no antisemitism. Fidel and Raul came to visit and participate with the Jewish community. Those who were born or married to Jews are very proud.”
This brings up another story I heard from the Gottesmans. Adela Dworin invited Fidel to the Patronato for a Chanukah celebration. He said he had never heard of Chanukah. She told him, ‘It celebrates the revolution of the Jews against the Greeks.’ He responded, ‘I love revolutions.’ It took The Maccabees to touch Fidel Castro. Another Chanukah miracle.
By Bracha Schwartz