JEWS SURVIVE YEARS IN THE REVOLUTIONARY DESERT
By DAN FREEDMAN
c.2000 Hearst Newspapers
HAVANA, Cuba: According to the Bible,
it took Moses 40 years to lead the ancient Hebrews out of the
desert and into the promised land - about the same amount of time
it has taken Cuba's small Jewish community to get back on its
feet under Communist rule.
Depleted by departures since Fidel
Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba's tiny Jewish population of
1,500 is rebuilding itself.
The worship sanctuary at Havana's
main Jewish community center and synagogue, known as the Patronato,
has been renovated, largely with American donations. It is now
a warm and inviting place, hardly distinguishable from similar
spaces in suburban U.S. synagogues.
For decades it had been a wreck.
Tiles were falling from the ceiling, and birds, flying freely
in and out of broken windows, occasionally left their mark on
The newly repaired sanctuary is
a fitting symbol of how far Cuba's Jewish population has traveled
in 41 years under Castro.
``We are OK here,'' said Dr. Jose
Miller, 74, a retired surgeon who serves as the community's leader
in the absence of a full-time rabbi. ``There is no anti-Semitism.
We used to be isolated, but things have changed.''
With a membership of 150 families,
the Patronato is the largest of Cuba's five synagogues. It sponsors
a religious school for children, a library, activities for senior
citizens and training for young adults to lead worship services.
It also serves food after worship
services and doubles as a mini-pharmacy - important features in
a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.
A picture on the wall shows Castro
in his signature green fatigues posing with Miller at a 1998 party
celebrating Hanukkah, the 8-day Jewish festival of lights.
The relationship was not always
so cozy. As a Communist state, Cuba officially opposed all forms
of organized religion. Churches and synagogues were not allowed
to operate religious schools of any kind. Declaring yourself a
``believer'' was a sure way not to get the best jobs or admitted
to the best schools.
All that changed in 1991 with the
downfall of the Soviet Union. Job applications and government
forms no longer asked questions about religious affiliation. Also,
the hard times and grinding shortages drove many people to seek
answers in religion - some if only to get a little extra food.
Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba
had a robust Jewish population of 15,000. Jews from Turkey and
other parts of the Middle East had settled there after World War
I. And European Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler before and during World
War II found refuge in Cuba.
But when Castro declared the island
a Communist state and seized private businesses, the vast majority
of Jews began departing for the United States.
Adela Dworin, vice president at
the Patronato and chief librarian, was studying to be a lawyer
in 1961 when Castro seized her father's clothing factory. ``He
wanted to leave and I wanted to stay,'' she recalled in an interview.
``He said, `If you're not leaving, then I'm staying too.'''
Through the 1960s, Dworin bid goodbye
to virtually all her classmates and Jewish friends. She began
working in the Patronato library. ``Those were difficult years,''
Through it all, a small number of
Jewish families continued to celebrate the Sabbath and Jewish
holidays. ``Someone had to stay here and maintain the traditions
of our community,'' Dworin said. ``I think I made the right choice.''
For Jewish Cubans, the rebirth of
interest in religion over the past decade has yielded a mixture
of hope, challenge and disappointment.
Canadian shipments of matzoh, ritual
wine and other Passover holiday foods revitalized interest in
But the complexity of Kosher laws
governing food preparation, combined with the harsh realities
Cuba's erratic food supply, mean that while the synagogue does
not serve forbidden foods such as pork and shellfish, its meals
are ``not 100 percent Kosher,'' Dworin said.
The new faces showing up at the
synagogue were not those of Jews returning to their roots but
those of Jews discovering them for the first time. Virtually all
had married non-Jews and knew little of Jewish ritual.
``If you asked them questions,
they didn't know,'' Dworin said. ``What's Shavuot? They didn't
know.'' (It is a Jewish holiday commemorating the revelation of
Jewish law at Mount Sinai.)
Nevertheless, the synagogue was
a place to get help and advice and meet friends and for the young
a place to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. ``They feel like this
is their second home,'' Dworin said.
Instruction came from veterans such
as Dworin, as well as Jewish volunteers from the United States
and elsewhere. In 1995 a rabbi started commuting a few times a
year from Mexico, performing conversions of 300 non-Jewish family
Some young adults became proficient
in reciting blessings and portions of Hebrew scripture. They were
designated to lead the congregation in worship.
But many who received the training
decided to leave Cuba for Israel. About 400 Cuban Jews have departed
for Israel since 1994, a potentially devastating blow to a small
``It's been an up-and-down situation,
but when someone moves out, there's always someone there to move
in,'' said June Safran of Oakland, Calif., executive director
of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, a people-to-people group.
Safran has led delegations of Jews mainly from California on trips
to establish relations with Cuban Jews.
``I believe the community is going
to survive, and it will always be stronger than the period between
the '60s and the '90s.''
For Dworin, the dedication of the
Patronato's remodeled sanctuary last month went a long way toward
muting the years of turmoil. ``It was a dream come true,'' she
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