Cuba's small Jewish community keeps the faith

Copyright by  CNN

January 25, 1998 Web posted at: 7:54 p.m. EST (0054 GMT)

From Correspondent Larry Woods

HAVANA (CNN) -- When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, some 15,000 Jews lived and pursued their religion in Cuba.

Today, there are only an estimated 1,500 Jews throughout the island. But the anemic numbers conceal what appears to be a healthy resuscitation among Jewish Cubans still struggling for survival and for identity in Castro's Cuba.

For one thing, they are coming back to the synagogue, observing Shabbat, clinging to ancient traditions. And while their numbers may be small, youth is present, as young people lead where elders once did.

Dr. Jose Miller, a leader of the Havana Jewish community and a retired physician, credits a spirit of tolerance in Cuba for the resurgence of his religion.

"Cuba is not a country with anti-Semitic, or anti-anything, feelings. It's a country of blacks, Jews, Chinese, (people) from everywhere," he says.

In a country where interfaith marriage is common, many non-Jewish spouses are also converting.

"More than 90 percent (of couples are) intermarried," Miller said. "We talk about 500 Jewish families, but in each family there is a non-Jew."

Another vital part of Jewish rebirth is seen in the Patranato, Havana's largest Jewish community center, where families and friends meet weekly for a welcome hot meal and fellowship.

Much needed supplies -- everything from vitamins to powdered milk, from toothpaste to pencils, sent mostly from American and Canadian support groups -- are divided among Cuba's five major Jewish congregations.

"We are looking at our tradition of over 5,000 years of helping each other," says Eddie Levy of Miami, who helped found a support group for Cuban Jews, called Jewish Solidarity, four years ago.

Stanley Cohen, of Pittsburgh's branch of Jewish Solidarity, recently brought a cover for the Torah of Havana's busiest, but slowly crumbing, synagogue. He says his group sent more than $200,000 in merchandise to Cuba last year.

"I feel like history is being made in that we're seeing something growing and something being nurtured," Cohen says.

And there is another important institution in the rejuvenation of the Jewish community -- a kosher butcher shop.

Meat rations in Cuba may be meager -- one pound per person, three times a month -- but for Orthodox Jews in Cuba, being able to keep kosher means being able to keep the faith.

Copyright by  CNN