Cuba's Jews Take Heart From
First New Synagogue Since Revolution
07/24/98 01:08:57 PM
By DAVID ABEL
c.1998 Newhouse News Service@
CAMAGUEY, Cuba -- Thirty-six years ago, Alberto Roffe's grandfather
dug a hole in this city's only Jewish cemetery, lowered his
community's prayer books into it and covered the crypt with
Cuba's communist government had closed down Camaguey's two synagogues
and nationalized most of the small businesses run by Jews, prompting
most of the 800 Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews living in this
sleepy interior city to flee the country.
Now the religious resurgence that has seen Jews in Havana reclaim
their temples and reorganize their communities in recent years
is reaching Camaguey. The city's 27 Jewish families -- the third-largest
Jewish community in Cuba -- are planning to open the island's
first new synagogue since Fidel Castro's rebels took power in
``The only time we were able to come together since (Castro)
came to power was to say the Kaddish when someone died,'' says
Roffe, 47, a mechanic who serves as president of the local Jewish
The opening of the new synagogue -- a humble white turn-of-the-century
house connected to a row of homes in the city's center -- is
set for Rosh Hashana in late September, the final step after
years spent obtaining permission to buy the house and months
spent renovating it.
Roffe, whose grandfather came to Cuba to avoid religious persecution
in Turkey after World War I, says he has dreamed of opening
a synagogue in Camaguey since the government prohibited his
family and others from celebrating the Sabbath soon after Castro
declared the island a Marxist state. As more and more Jews fled
to the United States, the community disbanded and traditions
grew harder to maintain.
The government's hard-line stance began to ease in the 1980s.
Then, with the 1991 collapse of Cuba's benefactor, the Soviet
Union, Castro took the practical steps of liberalizing the economy
and permitting greater personal freedoms, including the practice
of organized religion.
In 1992, the government even decreed that one could be a good
communist and still be devoutly religious.
Shortly after, representatives from the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee, a nonprofit, New York-based organization
that provides cultural and humanitarian aid to Jewish communities,
received permission to enter Cuba.
``They taught us how to sing the prayers; they brought books
and gefilte fish -- and, most importantly, they taught what
we couldn't to our children,'' says Sara Albojaira, 41, a social
worker and former president of Camaguey's Jewish community.
``Years without formally practicing and without any organized
services really removed us from Judaism. Most of us, like me,
had to marry out of the religion. There were no Jews.''
Things were far different 40 years ago. Cuba's Jewish communities
flourished following a wave of immigration of Jews fleeing persecution
in Europe before and during World War II. Before the revolution,
more than a dozen synagogues served as many as 20,000 Cuban
Jews. In Camaguey, two temples, Shevet Ajim for Ashkenazis and
Tiferet Israel for Sephardics, were built in the 1920s as the
community grew to more than 800 Jews, Roffe says.
But after Castro's government made its anti-religion policies
clear, those Jews who did not flee the island were forced to
either observe their traditions at home or allow themselves
to be assimilated into the prevailing atheistic culture.
Roffe and the other Jewish leaders in Camaguey began investigating
the possibility of opening a synagogue soon after the Joint
Distribution Committee and other international Jewish organizations
helped unite the city's Jewish population. The Camaguey enclave
received another boost in 1995, when an Argentine rabbi converted
21 people, mostly spouses and children who have Jewish relatives.
``This community reinvented itself in a few years,'' says Merle
Salkin, director of the Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia,
who made her fourth trip here in June to teach Hebrew classes.
``It was never organized. Families never knew what other families
were doing. People started coming out of the woodwork, asking
questions and signing up for conversion classes.''
In 1996, after ignoring repeated inquiries, the government granted
Roffe and other Jewish leaders permission to open the new synagogue.
After a suitable house was found, officials delayed authorizing
the land sale for two years. Approval for the sale finally came
in March, though other bureaucratic obstacles held up the land
transfer until June.
The synagogue will be the country's fifth. Three synagogues
survived the revolution -- all in Havana, where about 90 percent
of the island's estimated 1,500 Jews live. In 1995, the government
allowed a congregation of about 90 Jews to reclaim its former
synagogue in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city.
``This is not something that happens overnight here,'' Roffe
says. ``Little by little, with patience, we will have our synagogue.''
It is happening with the help of outsiders. The $6,000 to pay
for the house came from Ruben Beraja, an Argentine with the
International Congress of Latin American Jews. Salkin's Philadelphia
congregation donated $3,000 for renovations and dozens of tallits,
yarmulkes and prayer books.
Despite the shabby condition of the white house, Jewish leaders
say it has become a symbol of the community's resurgence.
``The new Tiferet Israel is our reconnection with the past,''
says Johandy Crespo, 20, the community's youth group leader,
lifting a stone tablet covering the site where the prayer books
remained buried. ``This is our future.''
(David Abel wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark,