This article is reprinted with permission from
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc.

HAVANA – Many of those in Havana's main synagogue had traveled for hours to get there. In crowded buses the Cubans came from Santiago, Camaguey and Santa Clara. In small charter planes Americans flew in from Baltimore, New York and Washington. From Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, Latin American Jewish leaders had also come. As they all witnessed the torahs being brought into Havana's newly renovated Patronato synagogue, there were tears of joy and many smiles. For many years, this moment had only been a dream. A dream that has now come true.

Dr. Jose Miller, long-time leader of Cuba's Jewish community, stood proudly at the refurbished pulpit as he addressed the many Cuban, Latin American and North American Jewish leaders who had made their way to Havana for the rededication ceremony. "My friends, this synagogue and community center were first opened in 1953. Much has happened since then. This day, represents a new beginning for the Patronato. Today, we celebrate not only the renovation of a building, but the revival of a community. We are so happy to share this new beginning with our Jewish brothers and sisters everywhere."

The rededication of the synagogue and community center is being recognized as a milestone in the Jewish history of Cuba – a Jewish history that is both rich and largely unknown in the West.

Adele Dworin, the unofficial historian of Havana's Jewish community could not stop smiling. "When I was a little girl here in Havana, there was a strong Jewish community. Then, it all stopped, almost completely. Ten years ago, I was the youngest person working in the Patronato – and I was not young. Today," she giggles, "I am one of the oldest. So many young people are coming back. Isn't that wonderful?"

At one time, Cuba's Jewish community was the most prosperous in the Latin American world. Cuba played host to a large number of Jewish Americans who visited the island regularly and even formed burial societies with plots secured in Havana's Jewish cemetery.

Things changed overnight during the 1959 Revolution, as almost 90% of Cuban Jewry fled their homeland. The overwhelming majority of Cuban Jews who remained assimilated almost totally.

In 1992, in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Communist Congress of Cuba announced that Cubans could be religiously involved and still remain members in good standing of the Communist party. Eliminating the stigma of visible religious identification and expression was a crucial element in creating an environment hospitable to Jewish renewal.

Ivan Glait, JDC's Program Manager in Cuba, recalls with a smile, what it was like for those Jews who practiced their religion throughout. "When they had seven people and three torahs in a room, this was recognized as a ‘Cuban minyan!'" Glait and his wife Cynthia are responsible for overseeing the activities of every Jewish community in Cuba. He says the hard work of the communities across the island is producing results. "Big moments like this rededication are wonderful," he said. "Another big moment will come this summer when a young Jewish couple will become the first to be married in the newly refurbished Patronato. They met through Jewish community service at the synagogue. Now they will be married here."

The road to revival has not been easy. Even though the opportunity for revival had been created, the Jews of Cuba had undergone two generations of cultural amnesia. Little knowledge or resources necessary for rebuilding Jewish life existed, on either the individual or communal level.

Dr. Miller reached out to the JDC in 1992 and asked for help in nurturing the spark of Jewish life that the few had kept alive. JDC enriched the Passover packages that were being allowed into Cuba as religious relief. The packages, sent from the offices of the Canadian Jewish Congress, contained matzot and other Passover items. Soon after, JDC began sending in shipments of pharmaceuticals. At this point, a free pharmacy opened in the Patronato. Jewish doctors started dispensing medicines to anyone who came in with a verifiable medical need. With this program and others like it, the pulse of the Patronato began beating stronger, once more.

As they began returning, the Jews of Havana found that years of neglect had taken their toll on the Patronato. The elaborate woodwork of the main sanctuary had become riddled with termites. The roof consisted of a series of leaks and open holes. Birds nested in the rafters. All in all, it was a scene of abandonment. And yet, amidst the disrepair, the soul of the community shone brightly. Women's groups met in one corner of a large room, children's classes in the other, and the choir practiced prayers in the hallways. Argentinian Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, who attended the rededication ceremony, remembers visiting Cuba regularly in the early 1990's to teach Jewish studies and lead the congregation in prayers. Even then, he said, the spirit of the Cuban Jews was strong. "When I first arrived I saw a homemade poster which read, ‘Am Yisrael B'Cuba Chai!' [Long Live the Jewish Community of Cuba.!] I said to myself, this is my mission in Cuba. To help make this come true."

During the eight years since 1992, synagogues and community centers have been opened in towns across Cuba. A tide of cultural identification has been re-established, and Cuba is taking its rightful place among the Latin American Jewish community. Each summer, a Jewish youth camp hosted in Cuba attracts children from all over Central and South America. This summer, for the first time, Jewish children from the United States will also attend. As a community, Cuba's Jews now participate in a wide array of social service volunteer programs through their synagogues, including helping the elderly, providing supplemental medical care, teaching Hebrew and Jewish culture and offering Sabbath dinners.

"When I come back to my home community," Rabbi Szteinhendler remarked, "I see how we struggle to keep people from leaving the Jewish community. Here, in Cuba, they are struggling to join the Jewish community. What has happened here is a mitzvah. And you know, all of us who have helped should really thank the Cuban Jews for allowing us to perform this mitzvah. Because a mitzvah is a blessing for those who perform it."

At the start of the rededication ceremony, Dr. Miller nailed the mezuzah to the synagogue doorpost and recited the prayer. Then, as the people filed into the sanctuary for services, a parade of hands, young and old, reached out and touched the soft dark wood of the mezuzah, a symbol of their common past and the future they are building together.

Copyright, The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc., 2000.