As Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah, NY1 looks at the unique challenges Jews face in Cuba. When NY1’s Stephanie Simon traveled to the island on Humanitarian Visa earlier this year, she visited Havana’s largest synagogue. She introduces us to the woman who taught Fidel Castro the meaning Hanukkah.
Inside the largest synagogue in Cuba, President of Temple Beth Shalom, Adela Dworan says yes there are Jews in Cuba and the Jewish community here is thriving after many difficult years.
“We had so difficult a time that even for the high holidays we didn’t have a minyan (a quorum of 10 or more adults) to start services even for the high holidays for Yom Kippur. But we never closed the synagogue. If we had seven men and three Torahs so it made a Cuban minyan,” said Dworan.
Jews have lived in Cuba for more than 100 years. But many left after the revolution in 1959 fearing among other things, that they would not be able raise their children Jewish. Over the years the intermarriage rate grew as high as 95 percent. The result: before the revolution there were approximately 15,000 Jews in Cuba. Today it’s closer to 1,500. But new laws in 1990 gave all Cubans greater freedom of religion and the remaining synagogues have worked hard to attract Jews back.
“We are struggling to maintain Judaism in Cuba, alive in Cuba, and we have succeeded,” said Dworan.
Another turning point was Fidel Castro’s visit to the synagogue in 1998 at Dworan’s request.
“We asked him maybe it’s possible for you to attend the Hanukkah party? So he said what’s Hanukkah? He didn’t know the meaning of Hanukkah. So it’s difficult to explain the meaning of Hanukkah in words in two seconds, so I decided to tell him that Hanukkah is a revolution of the Jews – he likes revolutions! So he said I will come and he did,” said Dworan. Still there are many challenges, from getting Kosher food, to finding a rabbi to come even once year. So Cuban synagogues rely on help from Jewish organizations around the world.
“What we need is Judaica – yarmulkes, kippot,” said Dworan. Help from Jewish groups in the United States has also increased.
“We didn’t know if there still were Jews in the United States because we didn’t see them in Cuba,” says Dworan. “But now many are coming under religious licenses.”
With help that international help, Temple Beth Shalom holds regular services, celebrates all the holidays, and now the conversion rate to or back to Judaism has shot up to about 30 conversions last year.
It’s miraculous, given the circumstances.
For more information, or to help, check out:
The Cuba-America Jewish Mission
Cuba Phone: (537) 832-8953
Fax: (537) 33 3778
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
– Stephanie Simon