Cuba's Jews Take Heart From
First New Synagogue Since Revolution

07/24/98 01:08:57 PM


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 concrete.

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 1959.

``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 community.

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, N.J.)

AP-NY-07-24-98 1404EDT