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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 congregants below.

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,'' she said.

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 Jewish holidays.

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 members.

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 community.

``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 said.

Dan Freedman can be reached at 202-298-6920 or at the e-mail address -