Cuba's Jews: Rebuilding a religion
By MICHELLE BEARDEN of The Tampa Tribune

HAVANA - Every month, Jose Zaak boards a crowded bus for the eight-hour ride from Camaguey to Havana, a tedious trip with many stops along the way.

It's a ticket that a struggling student can barely afford, particularly in a country where money is so tight.

Destination: Patronato, a Conservative synagogue and Jewish community center. Zaak arrives before Friday's Shabbat services, and departs the next evening.

It is his only choice. There are few Jews in his hometown. To study with a community, he must travel here.

``I got thirsty, spiritually thirsty,'' says the 29- year-old Zaak, who began studying the faith of his mother three years ago. ``There's something mystical about this. When you are a Jew, you are a Jew in your blood.''

Zaak is part of a new generation of Jews in Cuba who are discovering a religion they knew little, if anything, about.

Before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, about 15,000 Jews lived in this island country. Up to 90 percent fled after the dictator took power, fearing f persecution or wanting to start a new life in countries with free-market economies.

Although there is no history of anti-Semitism in Cuba, followers of the faith were under the same restrictions as practitioners of any religion in this communist country. Practicing any religious beliefs was discouraged, and many Jews, like Christians, kept their faith hidden or abandoned it altogether to survive in the political system.

Today, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Jews call Cuba home. After years of decline, the Jewish population is slowly beginning to build again.

``By the late 1980s, it was so languid that we feared Judaism would become extinguished in Cuba,'' says Jose Miller, president of Patronato. ``We knew we had to act or it would be too late to reverse the situation.''

While Christian groups often seek new recruits, Jews generally don't evangelize. But it was their only hope.

Their goal: to reach out to younger Jews and families who had abandoned their religious traditions. They had to establish communities that would reinforce Jewish life, such as schools, kosher butchers and youth organizations.

``We were dealing with a whole generation who had lived without a Jewish way of life,'' Miller recalls. ``No rabbi, no bar mitzvah, no bat mitzvah, not even a Jewish wedding. They had grown into adults ignorant of Judaism.''

Miller and other leaders needed financial support and professional assistance to accomplish their ambitious goal. They turned to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, a nonprofit organization that provides cultural, educational, religious and humanitarian aid to Jewish communities. With the organization's commitment of volunteers and resources, the Cuban Jews began their rebuilding project.

The easiest target was Havana, home to three synagogues. More daunting was the rest of the country, where Jews were scattered in eight localities. Some lived isolated in small, distant towns.

Active and diligent people were asked to establish some center of attraction in their towns for Jews, Miller says. The effort paid off: Some 110 families came forward in the provinces, and another 400 in Havana.

Sunday schools were formed, even if they had only a few students. A rabbinical tribunal, made up of members from the United Synagogues of America, was assembled to supervise and approve conversions throughout the country. Youngsters organized chorus and dancing groups to provide cultural and liturgical activities.

And it's not just observant Jews who are contributing to the rebirth. People not considered Jewish - gentile spouses and children of gentile mothers - are playing a major role in rebuilding the communities, Miller says.

``It would not have been possible without volunteers,'' Miller says. ``That has been the key to our revival. People who are giving so much to make us whole again.''

Rabbis are still in short supply. Congregations share spiritual leaders, or borrow them from other countries for the High Holy Day and other special events.

Miller says Adele Dworin is one of the Jews who stayed. She remembers the difficult years, when Patronato synagogue went from a thriving community to just a few dozen supporters. Pews began to disintegrate and broken windows were left unattended. The sound of children's laughter was nearly silenced as the number of families dwindled to a handful.

``It was all very sad for me,'' Dworin recalls. ``This was not a paradise.''

But today, she sees their efforts paying off. Shabbat services draw dozens of worshipers. Members of the youth club perform Hebrew dances at community events throughout Havana. More important, they are curious about their religion.

``They are asking questions about their heritage,'' Dworin says. ``They want to know about their roots. They are our future.''

Zaak knows he represents the future.

``Twenty, 30 years ago, it was a blackout,'' he says. ``Now the lights are coming back on again.''

Michelle Bearden covers religion for the Tampa Tribune