Jewish youth lead
the way in a long-isolated community
(A Cuban Revival, Part 1)
By Kenneth Bandler
HAVANA (JTA) -- When
Pablo Verbitzsky's father asked him to appear in a recent play
about Anne Frank, the university student eagerly joined the cast
of Cuban Jews.
Although he was not
familiar with the poignant Holocaust story, Verbitzsky, whose
mother is not Jewish, grew up with some sense of his Jewish heritage
from his father, an Argentine Jewish theater director who settled
in Cuba in 1961.
Now, after several
months of studying at the Patronato, the main synagogue here,
where there are no full-time rabbis, Verbitzsky is one of several
young Jews who regularly lead Shabbat services.
The 18-year-old student
converted to Judaism in November. So did 49 other Cubans, all
children of interfaith couples in which the mother is not Jewish.
Under Jewish law, Jewish identity is passed matrilineally.
``Everyone comes to
the synagogue to be together,'' says a beaming Verbitzsky, expressing
hope that ``the community will grow.''
is emblematic of the reawakening of Jewish life on this island
of 11 million people.
Located barely 90 miles
from the United States, Cuba has for more than three decades been
virtually cut off from the rest of the Jewish world.
Before the 1959 revolution
that brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba boasted a vibrant Jewish
community of 15,000, with an array of Jewish institutions and
In the community's
heyday, there were five Jewish elementary schools, one Jewish
high school and five synagogues in the Cuban capital of Havana
-- the oldest a Sephardi synagogue dating from 1914.
Today, the Cuban Jewish
community -- numbering some 2,000 -- is a mix of Sephardi Jews
who came mainly from Turkey in the early part of this century
and Ashkenazi Jews who mostly arrived as refugees from Europe
before and during World War II.
Support for Castro
was nearly universal among the Jews when he overthrew the dictator
But within two years,
after Castro declared Cuba an atheistic state, nationalized businesses
and other properties, and introduced communism, some 12,000 Jews
joined thousands of other Cubans fleeing the country.
Most of the Jews landed
in southern Florida. Others went to Mexico and Venezuela.
``Most Jews thought
they cannot raise their children as Jews,'' says Adela Dworin,
vice president of the Jewish community in Havana. ``They feared
civil war. Living only 90 miles from the United States, they believed
it was impossible for Cuba to survive without the help of the
Among the Jews who
fled were most of the community's leaders, all its rabbis and
teachers, and many who had lost businesses.
In Miami, the continuing
hatred of Castro is just as strong among Jews from Cuba as it
is in the general exile community.
``They believe that
any Jew who stayed in Cuba was a socialist or communist,'' says
Raquel Scheck, a Cuban Jew from Miami who recently visited Havana
for the first time since leaving in 1961.
That view explains
why the remnant community in Cuba remains virtually cut off from
Cubans living in the United States.
``Very few Cuban Jews
in Miami support Jews in Cuba,'' says Dr. Jose Miller, the longstanding
president of the Jewish community here.
``Many of them do not
approve that other Jews are sending supplies [to Cuba] because
ultimately they say it will go to Castro.''
Among the Jews who
stayed, only a minority maintained any involvement with Judaism.
Most of the community drifted away from religious life, and intermarriage
The Patronato could
barely muster a minyan, though a number of Jewish families continued
to observe Shabbat and major holidays in their own homes, even
though candles, bread and other supplies were scarce.
For Passover, Jews
relied on packages sent from abroad, particularly from the Canadian
Jewish Congress, which had access because Canada maintained ties
Still, Jews here could
get kosher meat, a fact many here point to as a sign of the absence
of anti-Semitism in Cuba.
A visitor to Cuba today
finds a long-dormant Jewish community coming back to life with
The revival of Jewish
communal life stems in large part from a 1991 law passed by the
Cuban National Assembly that allows Cubans to be members of the
Communist Party and to participate in religious associations.
``Without this, the
recovery of the Jewish community would not be possible,'' Miller
For more than 30 years,
the daily minyan usually consisted of seven elderly men and three
Torah scrolls placed in chairs in a small chapel, Miller says.
Today, 60 percent of
the 100 people who come regularly on Shabbat to the main sanctuary
are ``youngsters,'' he says.
The ``youngsters have
a very strong Jewish feeling,'' Miller says. ``They have education.
Most important, they have Jewish soul.''
When the American Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee began to work with the Cuban Jewish
community after the 1991 law was passed, the Patronato sanctuary
-- not used for more than three decades -- was in serious disrepair.
Today, after JDC representatives
led a clean-up effort, the large sanctuary is functional, though
the many rows of individual cushioned seats are well-worn and
numerous ceiling tiles are missing.
Because of broken windows,
a hat and sunglasses are in order during Shabbat morning services.
Still, the decorative
pulpit and the congregation's gold-trimmed china set, with dinner
plates bearing ``Patronato'' in gold lettering, are reminiscent
of a more glorious period in the history of this grand synagogue
that had barely passed its Bar Mitzvah year when the revolution
But for Alberto Senderey,
who initiated the JDC's Cuba program, the state of the building
is not the main concern.
What is more important
is ``investing heavily in the people,'' says Senderey, an Argentine
who now heads the JDC office in Paris.
During the past four
years, the JDC, which assists Jewish communities worldwide, has
brought in rabbis, teachers and youth leaders from Argentina to
help Cuban Jews rebuild their community.
In December, an exuberant
Jewish community celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Patronato.
Leaders of smaller communities across the island -- Camaguey,
Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba -- came to the capital for the
Joining in the modest
celebrations were about 50 leaders of the JDC, constituting the
largest American Jewish group to visit Cuba in recent years.
Scheck of Miami grew
up actively involved with the Patronato. The decision to visit
here was ``very painful,'' she says, given the deep animosity
But ``I wanted to see
the community here, to see the youngsters,'' she says.
The Patronato, which
remains the center of Jewish activity in the Cuban capital, is
About 150 students
-- ranging in age from 4 to 60 -- attend Sunday school classes
that, because of a lack of space, are held in the sanctuary's
In the building's only
classroom, 12 young boys are training for their Bar Mitzvahs.
Organizations that meet regularly include local affiliates of
Hadassah and B'nai B'rith.
In 1995, a communal
newsletter called Menorah was launched.
All the teachers today
are Cuban, and some of them are university students who completed
a seven-month ``madrich,'' or leadership training, course here.
At Havana's university,
there are about 100 Jewish students, says Liver Maya, 21, who
recently completed the leadership course.
Most of the 40 students
who participate regularly in programs became involved after a
core group went door-to-door, inviting them to youth-oriented
events, he says.
Olga Stolick, 21, says
even though both of her parents are Jewish and she grew up with
an awareness of her heritage, the madrich course taught her ``many
things about the Jewish people and Jewish life that are helpful.''
Although older members
of the community are visibly delighted with the enthusiasm of
the younger members, a visitor detects that behind the smiles,
there is a sadness about the decades of inactivity.
As a community ``we
were almost dead at the end of the 1980s,'' says Jewish community
``The generation of
the 40- to 60-year-olds was the generation that left the community
when they were young, at the time of the revolution,'' says Jorge
Dinier, coordinator of the JDC programs in Cuba.
Havana Jewish community
Vice President Dworin says, ``We are the lost generation. We lost
Dworin, a university
student at the time of the revolution, decided in 1960 not to
``I was born here,
and I felt this was the country that opened its doors to my family
from Russia and Poland, and I felt I must have loyalty,'' she
``My father was afraid
to leave the country without me because when he left Pinsk, he
never saw his brother'' and many other relatives who perished
in the Holocaust, she says.
As a result, Dworin's
family stayed, and were among the few Jews who remained active
with the Patronato.
Most of Dworin's contemporaries
either left Cuba or simply lost touch with the community.
Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler,
an Argentine who on periodic visits to Cuba in the past four years
has helped spark the Jewish revival, credits the dramatic growth
of ``Jews coming out'' simply to ``word of mouth.''
The community has nearly
tripled in size from the 700 Jews the JDC officials found here
Part of the growth
came from the outreach to Jewish communities in smaller cities,
but much of it was due to children of interfaith couples deciding
As a result, 60 percent
of the community's 2000 Jews are converts, says Szteinhendler,
who was brought to Cuba by the JDC.
In addition to the
50 conversions carried out in late November, 30 circumcisions
and 20 weddings were performed by two Argentine rabbis and an
Argentine mohel. The three traveled by bus to three cities, carrying
with them for the marriage ceremonies the only ``chupah,'' or
wedding canopy, the Patronato owns.
All conversions are
done in strict accordance with Jewish law, says Szteinhendler,
noting that Israel Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau visited
Cuba in 1994 and approved of the conversions.
The conversions marked
the end of a process for those seeking to reconnect with the Jewish
people, but ``most important, it was the beginning of Jewish families,''
says Dinier, an Argentine who completed a two-year posting here
``Now, we have a lot
of Jewish families.''
ęcopyright 1996 Jewish Telegraphic Agency