Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jewish Cuba: an unexpected treasure

Jewish Cuba: an unexpected treasure
By RENA GODFREY, Special to The CJN
Thursday, 31 January 2008

Tears rolled down my mother's cheeks as eight beautiful, smiling Cuban
Jewish children walked hand in hand down the aisle toward the bimah of
the Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana. They were welcoming the Shabbat
Queen, singing Shalom Aleichem.

Seventeen years ago, this heartwarming Kabbalat Shabbat service would
not have been possible. In fact, between 1961 and 1991, this synagogue
could barely summon a minyan.

In Fidel Castro's regime, religion was not abolished outright, Adela
Dworin, president of the Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea De Cuba (known as
Patronato), explained. " If a Cuban Jew or Christian wanted to belong to
the Communist party, get a job in government or go to university, [he or
she] didn't want to openly show an affiliation toward religion. Only the
elderly attended synagogue in those years, because they had nothing to

This year, my mother wanted to take her children and grandchildren on a
vacation, in honour of her 70th birthday. After some research, she
decided on Cuba, as she had never been there and had often heard of the
beauty of Havana and the Jewish community that resides there. She chose
an all-inclusive resort in Varadero, where everyone could eat and drink
as much as they wanted. We expected what most sun-deprived Canadian
vacationers crave – the sun, the sea and the beach. What we didn't count
on were the unexpected gifts – learning first-hand of a people and their
way of life, which is entirely different from our own, and the chance to
connect with a small yet resilient Jewish community of 1500, committed
to its own survival.

After days of sampling all there was to eat at the resort buffet, and
dancing the merengue by the pool, we were ready for something more.
Havana was calling, and once we left the gates of the resort, the real
Cuba was waiting for us.

As a writer, I couldn't resist this opportunity to meet the Jewish
community and interview its leaders. Like any savvy Internet user, I
Googled "Jews in Cuba," got onto their website (,
e-mailed the contacts about my trip and my desire to help their
community, and then waited for a reply. After a few weeks without a
reply, I contacted the Canadian Jewish Congress, who promptly e-mailed
me back with the correct contact information and suggested that I call
Michael Soberman, national director of the Canada-Israel Experience.

Soberman is in close contact with the Jews of Cuba and has sent
approximately 50 Cuban youths on Taglit-birthright israel trips over the
past five years. On my behalf, Soberman immediately contacted William
Miller, vice-president of the Patronato, and the connection was made.

Miller supplied us with an extensive list of the Cuban Jewish
community's most needed items, ranging from syringes and Tylenol to
men's underwear and Shabbat candles. I was taken aback by the long list
of medical supplies requested, as I had always thought that Cubans were
well taken care of when it came to their medical needs. Even my brother,
who is a doctor, questioned the long list of medicines desired.

Little did we know then of the crucial role that the Patronato's
pharmacy plays in the lives of both the Jewish and the non-Jewish
communities in Cuba.

As Dworin explained, "Health care in Cuba is generally good. When you're
in the hospital, you're well taken care of, but when you're about to
leave, the doctors will ask you if you have relatives abroad who can
help with sending money or medicine. There just isn't the supply of
everyday medicines available."

In perfect and articulate English, Dworin's soft-spoken voice carried me
back to another time in Cuban history, when Cuba was a safe haven for
European Jewry. Dworin is one of two children born in Cuba to parents
who emigrated from Pinsk, Poland, before World War II. For many Jews,
like Dworin's father, Cuba was intended as a stopover on their way to
America. With the war fast approaching, Dworin's father could not save
the rest of his family from their demise, and decided to remain in Cuba.

Dworin loved growing up in Cuba as part of the Jewish community of
15,000. She attended Jewish elementary school and high school, and then
went on to law school. She pointed out that there was, and still is, no
anti-Semitism in Cuba.

"At the beginning of the revolution, the Jews welcomed Castro, as
[Fulgencio] Batista was a ruthless dictator, and the Cubans needed a

However, with the revolution also came dramatic changes in government
policies that many found intolerable. Castro's government confiscated
all private businesses and, as a result, in 1961, 90 per cent of Cuban
Jews, who belonged to the upper and middle classes of Cuban society,
fled. Dworin, then a law student, refused to leave. Cuba was her home,
and she and her family remained. Dworin continues to lives in the family
house in Vedado, a suburb of Havana, blocks away from the Patronato.

Havana is a majestic city, with magnificent buildings still standing but
in need of extensive repair, fossil-like remnants of a once-thriving and
international Cuban city. Much like the city, the Cuban people are
beautiful, highly educated and resilient, but life is hard.

"You won't find anyone starving in Cuba, people walking around without
clothes or children begging in the streets, but since the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991, and in combination with the American embargo,
everyday life is difficult for most Cubans," Dworin said.

She gratefully acknowledges and thanks the Canadian Jewish Congress for
being the first Jewish community to pledge its support to the remaining
Cuban Jews. In 1961, the CJC's Alan Rose promised to maintain a constant
connection to Cuban Jewry by facilitating an annual Passover food drive,
which has been ongoing for the last 47 years.

"It's not just about receiving the gefilte fish, matzah and hagaddot.
It's about showing our children that they are Jewish and staying
connected to other Jews."

According to Dworin, the Passover food drive was also instrumental in
strengthening the barely visible Jewish community prior to 1991. After
1991, Castro changed his policy on religion, allowing everyone to
worship openly.

When intermarried couples came to pick up the Passover foods, Dworin and
the late Dr. Jose Miller, then president of the Patronato, asked those
who were non-Jews if they wished to convert to Judaism. The response was
positive, as being Jewish also meant having access to a support system
that was direly needed.

"As Jews, we are privileged, in that we care about each other," Dworin
proudly said.

Miller also contacted the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC),
asking it to send youths from Argentina to teach the young Cuban Jews,
so that they could in turn teach the rest of the community about Jewish
life. The plan worked, and Miller's legacy is a now thriving Jewish

Miller's grandson, William, a Jewish convert himself, is passionate
about keeping the flame alive among Cuban Jewry. He is an electrical
engineer, runs the ORT computer centre for 120 students, the Sunday
school for 70 kids, rikudim and a summer camp, all housed in the
Patronato. A van generously donated by a group from New Jersey
transports the children to and from school and helps the elderly and
sick get to and from the hospital. The Patronato is the centre of
Jewish life, complete with a youth group, a women's group and a seniors'

While visiting the pharmacy, William Miller picked up a bottle of
medicine and turned to me: "Yes we need your medicines, but we also need
to have face to face contact with the Jewish communities from abroad, so
that the donors can really see where their donations are going."

Miller is currently making arrangements for Canadian volunteers to come
to Cuba to help restore the other synagogues in Havana that are in need
of repair. There are five synagogues in Cuba: three in Havana, one in
Santiago and one in Camaguey.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit the other synagogues in
Cuba, but this is not my last trip to this fascinating country. I'm
hooked and plan to return.

While lighting the candles at the Kabbalat Shabbat service with the 70
or so Cuban Jews, I kept thinking to myself that we (Jews in the
Diaspora) need the Jews of Cuba just as much as they need us. They need
our physical, emotional and monetary support, and we need them to remind
us of our good fortune. Living in a prosperous country such as Canada
means that most of us are not concerned about whether we'll have enough
food to feed our families for the week, or whether we'll be able to
purchase a new pair of shoes for our children.

Let us remember that for many of us, at one point in our lives or our
grandparents' lives, life was not always as good as it is now, and not
too far away is a community in need.

Rena Godfrey is a Toronto writer.

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