January 17, 2001, in the Miami Herald
to leave homes, Cuban Jews thrive in Miami
BY BETTY HEISLER-SAMUELS
Special to The Jewish Star Times
Cuban Jews began arriving in Miami
in 1960 along with the mass exodus of Cubans seeking political asylum
in the United States after Fidel Castro's Communist takeover. Jews
had emigrated to Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s when quotas to the U.S.
were cut sharply. By the coming of the Castro regime in 1959, they
comprised a respectable percentage of Cuba's business community. As
such, they were among the first victims of the revolution.
At first they came to Miami to wait
things out, hoping that American intervention would put an end to
what they considered unthinkable, a communist regime 90 miles away
from the U.S. But after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, they had no choice
but to start the painstaking task of rebuilding their lives and their
community. Today, there are about 2,500 Cuban Jewish households in
Miami-Dade County, according to an estimate by the Greater Miami Jewish
Unlike South American Jews, who later
emigrated with part of most of their assets, Cuban Jews, like the
rest of the country's bourgeois, were taken by surprise, many having
put little money out of the country. The beginning was hard and slow.
Many opened small shops in downtown Miami, trying to recreate the
style of commerce they knew on the island where Jews had shops in
certain streets of old Havana, mainly selling textiles and dry goods.
But business in downtown Miami was slow and only the strong survived.
Some people emigrated to Puerto Rico or New York. Others opened manufacturing
plants and slowly, as more Cubans moved to Miami, they started to
feed off their own markets until a new economy began to take shape.
Bernardo Benes was one of the first
Cuban Jews to become a banker in Miami when he joined Washington Federal
Savings and Loan in Miami Beach in the early 1960s.
``Among the refugees was a strong professional
class, many of them bankers, and the American banks took advantage
of this new pool,'' Benes recalled. ``They in turn started bringing
in clients that they knew from home and the banking character of Miami
Later, Benes and Carlos Dascal, another
Cuban Jew, started Continental Bank, the first Cuban-owned bank in
Socially the Cuban Jews felt a tremendous
need to affiliate. Their life in Cuba had been communal. Jews had
rarely wandered outside of the community's social circle. Benes said
that he and two friends approached a YMHA in Miami Beach and asked
to be allowed to use a room twice a week for social gatherings. ``They
agreed, with the condition that we pay their monthly electric bill,''
Benes said. ``We turned around. None of us had enough money to foot
In 1961, the Cuban Hebrew Circle was
founded. Now called Temple Beth Shmuel, Cuban Hebrew Congregation,
it is at 1701 Lenox Ave., Miami Beach. In the 1960s and 1970s, there
were about 900 families in the congregation. Now there are only about
650 as many families move away from Miami Beach, which had been where
most Cuban Jews used to live.
One existing synagogue that welcomed
Cuban Jews right from the start was Temple Menorah in Miami Beach.
Rabbi Meyer Abramowitz, who was the spiritual leader at the time,
offered the refugees free synagogue memberships until they could become
settled in their new home. Today, Cuban Jews are among the mainstays
of the synagogue. The president, Rosita Zelcer, is a Cuban Jew.
The current rabbi, Eliot Pearlson,
feels very close ties to the community. ``I
understand why, contrary to other immigrants, the Cuban Jewish community
has maintained the language, the music and the cuisine of their country
of birth,'' he said. ``My father
arrived from Poland at the age of 17 and the first thing he did was
change his name and forget the Polish language. The Poles were anti-Semitic,
their interaction with the Jewish community was negative and all he
wanted to do was to forget that part of his life.
``In Cuba, however, from what I understand
there was very little anti-Semitism and therefore Jews wanted to preserve
the positive aspects of that culture. The tolerant environment of
Cuba, in fact, enabled Jews to maintain a positive Jewish identity.
It is no surprise that the Cuban Jewish community has now reached
the highest levels of leadership in Miami.''
Many Cuban Jews have prospered beyond
their dreams in Miami. But for many, their change of status has not
brought a change of attitude. Rafael
Kravec is founder and CEO of French Fragrances, a publicly traded
company. In 1960, he came penniless to Miami when the wholesaler he
worked for in Havana was taken over by the government. ``For the first
eight months, I sold flowers for an importer, worked at Burdine's
and even joined a trade mission to the Caribbean as a translator,''
he recalled. He said that even
though he loves this country and has prospered here he still does
not fell 100 percent American. ``I'm still a Cuban and have very strong
ties with Israel,'' he said. ``I live Cuba and Israel every day.''
Some were affected by Castro's takeover
at a very early age. Marcos Kerbel emigrated to Miami at the age of
12 as part of the Pedro Pan airlift. He lived in foster homes in California
until his parents could join him in Miami years later. He
spent 22 years heading the Miami office of the Israel Discount Bank
and believes that he enjoys the best of three worlds, being Cuban,
American and Jewish. Kerbel said that at midnight every New Year's
Eve at the annual party at the Cuban Hebrew Congregation, everyone
sings three national anthems -- from Cuba, Israel and the United States.
According to Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuban
Jew who is a professor of Cuban history at the University of Miami,
most Cuban Jews are apolitical and have not gotten involved in Cuban
exile politics. The one notable exception was Benes, who during the
1970s was extremely active. At one point during the Carter administration,
he was among a group of Cuban exiles who took part in a dialogue with
Fidel Castro. The talks resulted in the freedom of many Cuban political
prisoners. However, Benes was vilified by many Cuban exiles for negotiating
with Castro and he largely withdrew from exile politics.
Suchlicki, who is the author of a widely
used history of Cuba, said that ``Cuban Jews are a generation in transition
with a diluted identity. We identify with three countries: Cuba, the
U.S. and Israel.'' He said Cuban Jews have very little political clout
in Miami, but some economic clout. A number of Cuban Jews also have
become prominent in the organized Jewish community here. ``Four years
ago, we inaugurated Isaac Zelcer as the first Cuban president of the
Greater Miami Jewish Federation,'' he said. Zelcer is another local
success story. In 1960, he left Cuba with his young family and went
to New York, where he worked in a tie factory until he became president.
In 1980, he moved to Miami and started Isaco Ties, which is now one
of the largest accessories companies in the U.S.
The Zelcers were so dedicated to business
that when the family would travel to Lake Como in Italy to develop
the line, the children, rather than going to the beach, would visit
the mills with their parents. ``That's how they learned the business,''
George Feldenkreis came to Miami in
1961 ``with a pregnant wife, a child in my arms and $700 in my pocket.
Today as CEO of Supreme International, Feldenkreis is at the helm
of one of the major sportswear manufacturing firms in the country,
with the recent acquisition of Perry Ellis International.
Feldenkreis has long been active in
the Jewish community, from working for the Zionist Union in Havana
to serving as president of the Cuban Division of the Greater Miami
Jewish Federation. He said that some day, when he has the time, he
would like to be president of the federation.
A number of members of the Cuban Jewish
community have been major charitable givers. Among the most prominent
is Isaac Olemberg. The ballrooms of both the Cuban Hebrew Congregation
and Temple Menorah bear his name.
Most Cuban Jews are of the European
tradition, and both of these synagogues are Ashkenazi. The principal
Sephardic Cuban synagogue is Torat Moshe, 1200 Normandy Dr., Miami
Beach. At Torat Moshe, the Orthodox tradition is observed and women
and men sit separately.
Sabeto Garzi is president of Torat
Moshe, where Sephardic Week is observed every February with a cultural
and musical program including performances in Ladino, the Sephardic
counterpart to Yiddish. Salomon Garazi is also past president of FESELA
(The Sephardic Federation of Latin America).
He and Alberto Barrocas, who is active
in the Latin Auxiliary of the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged, are
among the most prominent and involved people in the Sephardic Cuban
community here. The Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities are somewhat
less polarized in Miami than they had been in Cuba, where both had
their own community centers.