THE JEWS OF CAMAGUEY - by John Josephs

"Youíre going to where?" That was the usual reaction to our announcement that Michelle and I were going to Cuba.

It hadnít always been the plan. When we realised that Mike and Linda Necus would be celebrating their silver wedding anniversary exactly a week after us, the four of us had thought about throwing a big joint simcha but, after a meal together to discuss plans, we came up with a much better idea- a joint holiday.

Why Cuba? Well, because it was a special occasion we wanted somewhere exciting, preferably hot any sunny which wasnít too expensive. Cuba fitted the bill exactly. The company called the trip "The Cuba Experience," which it certainly was. We soon got used to the inevitable cracks about hi-jacking and beards and began to find out what we could about Cuba.

We hadnít realised that there were any Jews on the island but researches on the Internet led me to a couple of sites including one The Jews of Cuba. This is an American site which contains a considerable amount of information. It is run by Richard Smith of Richmond, Virginia, and Jorge Rivero Behar, of Santiago de Cuba.

Although organised religion was largely outlawed following the 1959 revolution, the governmentís stance began to relax during the late 1980ís until in 1992 organised religion was once again permitted.

Although most of Cubaís Jews left the island for the United States there are still about 2,000 Jews on the island. Most of these, about 1400, live in Havana, where there are three Shuls, but we were particularly interested in the community of Camaguey, which is in the centre of the country and is Cubaís third largest city, as for most of our trip we would be in Playa St. Lucia which is about 70 miles, or one and a half hoursí drive from Camaguey.

The Jews of Camaguey are in the process of building a new Shul, the first to be built in Cuba since the revolution. It has a Jewish population of about 140, which makes it about the same size as Northampton. After finding an article on the Internet about the community by David Abel we decided to try to contact the community.

This was easier said than done. After contacting Richard Smith by e-mail, he put me in touch with Mindy-Sue Shapiro who has been to Camaguey and has met some members of the community. She gave us the address and telephone number of Alberto and Miriam Roffe, who are the leaders of the community.

Our holiday comprised two nights in Havana, 10 nights in Playa St. Lucia and the last night in Havana before flying home overnight. It isnít generally known but Cuba is a very big country. Itís over 800 miles long and our transfer from Havana to Playa St. Lucia would be by internal flight.

What we hadnít bargained for was, first, the amount of time you waste in transfers on a two centre (or in our case a three centre) holiday and second, Hurricane Mitch. After a full day in Havana we set off for the airport the following afternoon for what was supposed to be a short (1Ĺ hour) flight to Camaguey, arriving at the airport two hours before the flight was due to leave. We arrived during what we thought was a short-term tropical rainstorm but was actually, unknown to us, the start of Hurricane Mitch. Our flight was in an old but reliable Russian Antonov propeller engined plane. Because the plane only flies at about 10,000 feet it isnít pressurised. The cooling system involves opening vents allowing cool air into the cabin or, when youíre flying through cloud, steam. This looks frighteningly like smoke!

About 10 minutes before we were due to land we learnt that owing to adverse weather conditions (i.e. another tropical storm) at Camaguey, we were to be diverted to Holguin which is half an hour further on. After an hour in a transit lounge at Holguin we flew back to Camaguey. We arrived at about 7.30 and after a seemingly endless coach trip through the rain we arrived at St. Lucia at about 9.00 in the evening. For the next two days we had intermittent rain and strong winds. We were actually very lucky because we were only on the fringe of the area affected by Mitch.

I telephoned Alberto Roffe in Camaguey and arranged to go to his house a couple of days later. This was quite a phone call considering that I donít speak any Spanish and he has virtually no English! Our tour representative, Ariel, comes from Camaguey and kindly marked the street on our map for us. We hired a car and drove to Camaguey. Driving in Cuba is a dream during the day- thereís virtually no traffic outside the cities. At night itís a different story with dozens of cycles being ridden along unlit streets without lights, not to mention horses and carts!

After looking around Camaguey for the morning aided by a charming boy of about 14 who attached himself to us as an unofficial guide, we set off to find Albertoís house using our repís instructions. We ended up quite lost but a kindly museum curator led us on his bike all the across to the other side of the city where the address really was. Thanks, Ariel!

We eventually arrived at the house in the late afternoon and were made very welcome by Miriam who speaks very little English. We were soon joined by Alberto and another member of the community and also by a lady whoís an English teacher. With her help, we had a very interesting conversation. We also met Miriamís mother who lives next door. Unfortunately there was then a power cut. This happens virtually every day in much of Cuba. Miriam showed us some photographs including a recent one of her and Alberto under a chupa during a ceremony when she converted to Judaism.

While we were at the house, someone brought in what looked like half a loaf of French bread. This, she told us, is a dayís bread ration for two people. When we thought of the mountains of food weíd eaten in the hotel and of the amount thatís thrown away, we felt very guilty.

Alberto then took us to see the new Shul which is about 10 minutesí walk away. Itís a very small building which seems to be two houses knocked into one. The structure is sound but thereís a great deal to do inside. Alberto told me that they had hoped to open the Shul in time for Rosh Hashanah but that they had run out of money and had to stop. The Shul has one Sefer Torah and a small Ark. They hope to open it for prayer some time next year but this depends on donations. When you consider that a doctor in Cuba earns about 20 dollars a month (no itís not a misprint) they need all the help they can get.

Alberto is very proud of what they have achieved. The community is growing. they have 27 children so far. The community is dependant on help both from inside Cuba and from outside. They receive supplies from America and help from a Rabbi from Havana. They are starting to learn Hebrew. After all they have 40 years to catch up.

by John Josephs