Santa Clara, Cuba — For a decade after the Cuban government loosened its restrictions on religious practice, Salvador Levy and his wife Zoila Perez attended the Jewish community’s seders here, usually held in a member’s home.
Last year, for the first time, they came as Benjamin ben Abraham and Ruth ben Abraham.
A few months after they converted to Judaism, the couple joined Santa Clara’s near score of other Jews at a seder conducted in a rented room in the House of Science, a modest lecture and research hall near the center of the city whose wooden front door is flanked by two pairs of Corinthian columns.
Last week they came again, with their two young sons. Fourteen other members of Santa Clara’s Jewish community — together they comprise the city’s entire Jewish community — sat with the couple in the room, at a small wooden table topped with matzah and other kosher holiday foods sent from abroad.
Community seders were held this year on the first night of the holiday in seven other Cuban cities, including Havana, where the capital’s three extant synagogues sponsored their own.
The seders are a sign of Cuban Jewry’s increasing vibrancy. Another sign: Many of those attending the seders, possibly half, according to many estimates, are recent converts to Judaism.
Whatever the actual figure, Cuba probably has the highest percentage of Jews by choice of any community in the world. Some have Jewish roots and are returning to the community.
They are the faces you see at the seders and Chanukah celebrations, at lectures and Hebrew school lessons, and Shabbat and High Holy Days services. And each year you see more of them, more Jews openly wearing Magen Davids, more young people becoming bar and bat mitzvah, more teens taking part in the kesher group that visits the elderly and disabled.
They come to Jewish activities, they say, to spend time with fellow Jews. Cynics say they are attracted by the food served at communal affairs or by the possibility of immigrating to Israel.
Rabbi Dana Kaplan, a Miami-based educator and writer who has made several trips to Cuba, says Judaism fills a spiritual void for many Jews who see their land’s socialism-communism as a failure.
Whatever their reasons, they come.
“There is a revival,” says Dr. Jose Miller, president of the Patronato, Havana’s synagogue-community center. “We are a Jewish community,” a community with a secular history. “We are a Zionist community. We support Israel.”
“We” is 1,200 to 1,500 people, depending on who is providing the estimate. Cuba, the home to Jews who came from Turkey a century ago and from Eastern Europe before World War II, had some 15,000 Jews in the 1950s. Most left after the revolution put Fidel Castro in power in 1959. They went to South America and Spain and the United States, particularly Miami, to escape not the specter of anti-Semitism but the nationalization of their businesses.
Most of the rabbis and teachers and other leaders departed. Havana’s kosher restaurant went out of business, synagogues closed, religious education ceased. The community became dormant.
But in 1992, Cuba declared itself a secular state instead of an atheistic one, and allowed citizens to join the Communist Party as well as religious associations. Since then, the country’s dominant Catholic Church has experienced a renaissance. And the Jewish community was reborn.
At Miller’s invitation, the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of American Jewry that helps strengthen struggling Jewish communities around the world, came in 1994. The JDC sends husband-wife teams for two-year stints of teaching classes, running camps and developing young leaders.
“Without the Joint, nothing would happen in Cuba,” Miller says.
As in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, whose Jewish communities experienced their own Jewish revivals after communism fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cuba lacked a cadre of Jewishly knowledgeable people who could lead the community without outside help.
“We lost two generations” who grew up in a Jewish vacuum, Miller says.
Off the radar screen of most American Jews, Cuban Jewry has become a must-do visit for leadership missions, a quicker visit to an emerging community than an intercontinental jaunt to Eastern Europe. Besides the Joint, organizations with a presence here include ORT, Hadassah, Chabad, Oakland’s Cuba-America Jewish Mission, several Jewish institutions in Miami, and the Canadian Jewish Congress, which has sent Passover food packages since 1961.
With this help, the Jewish community has begun to re-establish itself.
To an outsider, Cuba’s few Jewish sites look like those in any American neighborhood whose best days are behind them. Havana’s deteriorating synagogues are lined with the standard Israeli photographs,. Its cemeteries are well tended but Spartan.
“Economically, Jews are reflective of the rest of Cuban society, which is poor,” says Will Recant, JDC assistant executive vice president. “Many Jews are professionals, but being a professional in Cuba doesn’t give you much of an advantage” in terms of earning power. The average salary is $15 to $20 per month, and food is rationed.
To an outsider, Cuba looks like a movie set, with 1950s vintage cars riding the roads and posters lauding the victory of the “the Revolution” decorating the walls.
Cuba is a safe place to be Jewish, an outsider is told.
“We don’t face any problems,” Miller says, referring to the type of government-sponsored or popular anti-Semitism associated with the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. And, he says, there is no fear of outside terrorism.
“Do you see any walls around us?” he asks about the Patronato building, which is open to the public. “Do you see anyone” — like the armed guards common at Jewish buildings in the West — “protecting us against terrorism?”
“For Cubans,” says Tatiani Santos, a physician-tour guide-photographer whose pictures of Cuban Jewry will be exhibited during a JDC board of directors meeting in New York next month, “the Jews are OK.”
“They say there has never been anti-Semitism in Cuba,” Recant says. “You hear that over and over by [Jewish] leaders of the country.”
Although Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, the Israeli flag flies in Cuban synagogues, Israeli products are sold in Havana’s Jewish-style Hotel Raquel that was established by the government a year ago to appeal to Jewish tourists, and several hundred Cuban Jews have made aliyah in the last decade.
The government, members of the Jewish community say, does not interfere in how Jews conduct religious activities.
No one from the government monitored the Passover celebrations last week. Although a few scattered Jews held their own seders, most came to the communal events.
“Celebrating Pesach means we are alive as Jews,” says David Tacher, an accountant who has served as president of Santa Clara’s Jewish community since 1995.
A native of Havana who had a day school education, he moved here in 1982 and became active in the reconstituted Jewish community. Before the revolution Santa Clara had 1,000 Jews; the synagogue closed 40 years ago.
In October, Tacher arranged for a Holocaust memorial to be erected in the city’s Jewish cemetery in a ceremony attended by 100 people, including government and church officials, and members of the country’s Jewish community.
Made of marble and bronze, the monument was carved by Waldo Garcia Mederos, a local sculptor. Mederos, who is not Jewish, did extensive research into the Shoah and Judaism.
The memorial, thought to be the newest Holocaust monument in the world, is a statement of solidarity with the wider Jewish community, although no survivors live here and no current Jewish residents are known to have had relatives who died in the Holocaust, says Tacher. It was Tacher who raised the $450 for its construction.
Havana’s two Jewish cemeteries each have a Holocaust memorial dedicated a few years after World War II. Tacher wanted his in Santa Clara, off the beaten track, “because the idea came from the community.” It is on the itinerary of Jewish visitors and Cuban schools. “All Cubans know about this monument,” he says.
Santa Clara is Cuba’s fourth-largest city, an agricultural-industrial town of 200,000 a three-hour drive from Havana in the country’s flat, central plain. It’s best known as the place where Che Guevara led the first victorious battle in the Cuban Revolution, where his remains are buried in a towering memorial.
I went to Santa Clara, under the auspices of the JDC, to help the community lead its seders.
In past years, about a score of Santa Clara Jews attended the seders. This year it was 16, every Jew in the city. “Some people made aliyah,” Tacher says.
In the House of Science, with the sound of horse-drawn taxis echoing in the narrow streets, they read in Spanish and Hebrew, sang in Ladino and played with the toys in the Box of Plagues that Baltimore’s Congregation Tiferes Yisroel had donated.
At their corner table, the ben Abrahams sat with their sons. Salvador, 9, and Ariel, 4, knit kipas atop their heads, sang along during the seders and searched in the dark hallway for the afikomen.
The entire family converted to Judaism last year; the parents had attended introduction to Judaism classes conducted by Nestor Szewach and Mara Steiner, the JDC coordinators whose term here ends in August. A Conservative rabbi from Mexico convened the court of three rabbis who sat for their conversion.
For all the converts there was immersion in the ocean; for Levy a symbolic circumcision.
Levy, 47, an electrical engineer whose paternal grandfather was a Turkish-born Jew, first came to an event run by the JDC in 1994 because of a vague interest in his roots.
“From the first moment I felt at home,” he says.
His wife, 36, an accountant who was raised without a religious affiliation, says she felt as if she captured some of God’s light of creation when she underwent her conversion.
Although kosher meat is difficult to obtain in Cuba, the couple eliminated pork and milk-and-meat products from their diet. There are mezuzahs on the doorposts of their house, Jewish books on their shelves, Israeli art on their walls.
“We love being Jewish,” says Levy, an eager student of Jewish history and customs. They might consider aliyah one day, he says. So might many Cubans.
“The future [of Cuban Jewry] is uncertain,” Miller says. That’s an improvement. “If you asked me the same question 20 years ago, my answer would have been very pessimistic.”
Levy, who joined hands with Jewish Santa Clarans in singing “Hatikvah” and other popular Hebrew songs following the second seder last week, says he knows his short-term future.
Next year he will attend the communal seder, again, on the first night of Passover. And he will lead his own at home, for the first time, on the second.