For Cuban Jews, endless deprivation

By Steve Fainaru, Globe Staff, 09/23/96

HAVANA - Birds enter through the synagogue's broken windows and leave their droppings on the faded velvet seats. During religious services, most of the sparse crowd sits in the first two rows to be near four buzzing fans that push hot air through the suffocating building.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that is the most sacred of the Jewish holidays, will be celebrated all over the world today with marathon services and solemn abstinence, including a daylong fast. But deprivation is constant for Havana's once-thriving Jewish community, which is fighting back from near extinction after 37 years of the Cuban revolution.

In the 1950s, there were 15,000 Cuban Jews - shoemakers and bankers, doctors and architects from families who left Europe in the early 1900s. Almost the entire community picked up for Miami and Israel when Fidel Castro's Communist government began seizing businesses in the 1960s.

Today, there are no more than 1,500 Jews in Cuba, many in their 60s and 70s. At sundown last night, wearing tattered prayer shawls and faded black skullcaps, a handful of them straggled into the enormous Temple Beth Shalom to begin Yom Kippur services conducted by a 24- year-old rabbinical student flown in from Israel by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

``We can't afford to pay a full-time rabbi,'' said Lev Maya, a 22-year-old graphic design student who is working to involve Jewish youth in the community.

``The synagogue is a metaphor for the country,'' said Howard M. Shaw, a semiretired Yarmouth dentist who spends most Jewish holidays in Cuba.

Built in 1957, Temple Beth Shalom takes up nearly half a block near downtown Havana. Once the hub of most Jewish activity in Cuba, it is now part of Havana's grand decay, an example of communities fractured and nearly destroyed by the revolution. Half the building was sold to the government after the Jewish exodus.

Downstairs, in a large basement, members of the community gather after Sabbath services for a Saturday afternoon meal. Some of the food is left over from donations received for Passover, a spring holiday.

``The Jewish holidays here, maybe because they've lost their rabbis, there's a different feeling,'' said Shaw, who is a member the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis. ``In the States, there's a little bit of fear and trepidation and excitement. People are reviewing their sins of the past year, thinking of the future. It's at a higher level. Here, things are so depressed, you don't get that feeling. People are just surviving.''

By the late 1980s, according to Alberto Mechulam, ``we had probably lost two generations of Jews here.'' Services were attended by five or 10 elderly people. There were about 20 students enrolled in a Hebrew school that lacked pencils, paper and books.

Mechulam and others say that the community is coming back slowly. Hebrew school enrollment has increased to 120 students. The community receives assistance from the Canadian Embassy, which represents Israel in Cuba, and the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, which works to protect and strengthen Jewish communities abroad.

``The idea is to strengthen the community so that it can stand by itself,'' said Roberto Senderowitsch, an Argentinian who coordinates the committee's programs in Cuba. The programs include everything from the distribution of cooking oil to the organization of religious education.

``It was a community that was almost dead, but now it's beginning to flourish again,'' said Maya, the graphic arts student. He conducted the Sabbath services Saturday under the guidance of Adrian Herbst, a rabbinal student who is teaching others to perform holiday services after he returns to Israel.

Maya said he now goes door-to-door in the community hoping to recruit not only Jewish children but their parents, many of whom abandoned Judaism because of religious persecution. ``There's more young people,'' he said. ``There's more spirit. It's coming alive again.''