Letter from Havana
By Michael Orbach
Published March 30, 2011.
The hubbub surrounding Cuba's small Jewish community these days does not
faze Yakob Berezniak Hernandez.
Sitting behind a desk crowded with a typewriter, several cans of
Lieber's tomato paste and piles of loose foreign change, Hernandez, of
Havana's Adath Israel synagogue, waved away inquiries about Alan Gross,
the 61-year-old American Jewish contractor sentenced to 15 years in
prison March 15. Gross was found guilty of seeking to clandestinely
distribute Internet satellite communications equipment to Cuba's Jewish
community on behalf of United States Agency for International Development.
"We have good relationships with the goyim," said Hernandez. "This is a
paradise for religions. You can't find anti-Semites [here]. No one cares."
But several days later, it became clear that some people outside Cuba
care a lot. When former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba on March
28, he met almost immediately with Jewish community leaders, followed by
meetings over the next two days with senior Cuban officials, including
President Raul Castro. ABC News reported that the Gross case was a
prominent part of his discussions with the Cuban officials.
The Gross case also shined a spotlight on the small Cuban-Jewish
community or "Jubans," as they are known. While close to 95% of the
Jewish population fled Cuba before or soon after the revolution, a
remnant remained. Now numbering a little more than 1,000, the community
has experienced a religious reawakening.
These days, 200 people or more pray every Sabbath in the El Patronato
Bet Sholom Synagogue, the largest in Cuba, and close to 100 teenagers
attend Sunday school, where they learn Hebrew and study about Judaism.
Adath Israel, located in the old Havana district, is the sole Orthodox
synagogue in Cuba. Hernandez, a hulking, bearded 29-year-old, fulfills
many roles in the congregation. He is the synagogue's cantor, public
prayer reader, one-man burial committee and treasurer. After spending
four months in Haifa in 2009 studying the laws of kashrut, he also
became the community's sole shokhet, or ritual slaughterer, a task he
fulfills five blocks away, in a butcher shop. (Meat, a luxury in Cuba,
is regularly provided to members of the Jewish community under the
national rationing system, instead of the pork rations others receive.)
Outside Hernandez's office, women knitted yarmulkes with Israeli and
Cuban flags intertwined, which they sold to tourists for roughly $10, a
little less than a month's salary for most Cubans.
While Israel and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic ties, Cuban Jews can
make aliyah and leave the country, unlike their fellow citizens. Many
Jews have immigrated to Israel, though Hernandez said that some have had
trouble adjusting. "It's difficult to adapt to life in Israel,"
Hernandez said, citing the relaxed atmosphere of Cuba. "People that stay
are very happy. It's a place to practice Judaism."
The Orthodox Adath Israel, which holds daily morning and
afternoon-evening services, found a novel way to attract people in this
country of scarcities to its gatherings: food. The synagogue provides a
meal after both shacharit, the morning service, and mincha, the
Hernandez said that the congregation numbers 300 members, many of whom
he claims keep kosher thanks to donations from the Jewish community of
Panama. The synagogue bakes challah in its own kitchen; for Purim, Adath
Israel baked hamantaschen. A new van, with the name and logo of the
synagogue's website, was parked outside — a strange sight in Havana,
where bicycle taxis and refurbished 1950s Chevrolets and DeSotos crowd
the dusty streets. This relative wealth didn't stop members of the
community from offering to sell cigars to a reporter.
Ruth Behar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan
and the author of "An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba,"
said that the community is composed mainly of converts.
"There's a handful of Jews on both their mother and father's side," she
said. "Most have converted because their father is Jewish or they have a
grandparent. They're very much a larger part of Cuban society."
Outside Adath Israel, Bryam Ernesto Quirch Acosta, 21, an engineering
student at the University of Havana whose grandfather was Jewish,
explained why he came to the synagogue. "I feel sorry," he said in
Spanish. "I don't know how to be Jewish."
The community's makeup has caused some problems for Lubavitch, the
Hasidic sect famed for its worldwide outreach. The Orthodox synagogue
broke ties with the group recently.
"They make propaganda against the Jews and the goyim," Hernandez said,
explaining the break.
Shimon Aisenbach of the Chabad Canadian Friends of Cuban Jewry said that
the falling-out was caused when the synagogue's old president left.
Lubavitch emissaries, according to Aisenbach, were told that the
synagogue no longer believed in the Orthodox definition of someone who
is Jewish, which requires matrilineal descent.
"They proved it clearly to our emissaries by allowing an outright
non-Jew to blow the shofar on that Rosh Hashanah," he explained in an
email to the Forward.
Hernandez said that the synagogue is strictly Orthodox and does not do
conversions, though it does allow those who have converted in the
Patronato synagogue to take part in its services.
For most Cubans, though, conversions and intermarriages seem a part of
life. Rosa Behar (no relation to the anthropologist), a prominent,
retired gastroenterologist who runs a free pharmacy for the Jewish
community and serves as president of the Cuban chapter of Hadassah,
called them the "most beautiful thing" about the Jewish community.
"They come because life is better," she said, referring to the many
assimilated Cubans with some Jewish ancestry who flock to synagogue
Cuba's hostile foreign policy toward Israel is largely typical of
leftist governments worldwide. But there are low-profile chinks in the
public stance. In 1992, Rafi Eitan, a former senior Mossad operative and
current Israeli Cabinet minister, founded a company that owns several
large citrus cooperatives in the country. He markets the cooperative's
fruits in Israel. Eitan, who was implicated in Jonathan Pollard's
Washington espionage scandal in the 1980s, has a personal relationship
with Fidel Castro through his company. In 2006, Eitan joined Castro to
inaugurate Havana's Holocaust memorial monument — a large seven-branch
menorah in a central city square.
"The Cuban government doesn't like the Israeli government and their
attitude toward the Palestinians, but they actually love Jewish people
and appreciate the Jews," Ruth Behar said.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of
International Studies at the University of Denver who lived in Cuba
until 2001, said he believed that Gross was an unwitting instrument of
the old U.S. policy of regime change dressed as Jewish solidarity. At
Gross's closed trial, Lopez-Levy related, citing accounts he heard from
Cuba, a Jewish communal leader testified that Gross, who entered on a
tourist visa, had never informed the Jewish communal official he was
working on behalf of USAID. The Cuban government views USAID's Cuba
programs, funded under Congress' Helms-Burton Act imposing sanctions on
their country, as part of a U.S. effort to undermine the regime.
"It is legitimate to promote human rights, legitimate to promote
religious freedom, legitimate to promote communications with Cuban
citizens [to] the outside world," said Lopez-Levy, who strongly supports
Gross's release. "What is not legitimate is to do so as an agent of a
government that seeks to undermine the regime without the informed
consent of the community."