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Being Jewish in Havana

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Beth Shalom Temple in Havana. (Hannah Alberga photo)

Jews in Havana, Cuba, may not have a rabbi or supplies of kosher food, but the community is thriving nevertheless.

In Canada, it’s not uncommon to find a security guard at the entrance to a synagogue. Likewise, every shul I’ve attended abroad for family celebrations has been similarly safeguarded. To my surprise, when I approached the Beth Shalom Temple in Havana and no one greeted me at the door, I was taken aback. How could this be?

“A lot of Cubans don’t even know what a Jew is. If you don’t know, you don’t care,” Anay, a youth leader in her late 20s and teacher at the Jewish school, told me.

Despite the political situation in Cuba, Jewish people are not marginalized or discriminated against. Anti-Semitism does not exist in their vocabulary. In Havana, the majority of the population has never heard of Judaism.

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Every year at Passover, the Canadian Jewish community sends a package of kosher goods to two of the remaining three Havana synagogues – Beth Shalom and Adath Israel – so the local Jewish community can celebrate the holiday with a kosher seder. This is the only time of year Cuban Jews have access to kosher food. Since intermarriage is the norm in Havana, Chabad claimed they could not support the community. Without Chabad, it is impossible to acquire kosher food year-round.   

Inside the Adath Israel Synagogue (Hannah Alberga photo)

Nevertheless, in the basement of the Beth Shalom Temple, originally built in the early 1950s, long wooden tables with white plastic tablecloths are set up for Shabbat dinner. The lack of kosher food hasn’t stopped the shul from hosting 100 members of the community every Friday night. In the basement there is also a religious school, which students attend at the end of the day, once their public school classes are over.

In 1958, 25,000 Jews lived in Cuba. Now, only 1,200 remain on the island, 1,000 of them in Havana. In 1959, after Fidel Castro’s Communist government came to power, a mass exodus containing 90 to 95 per cent of the Cuban Jewish population fled to Miami and elsewhere in the United States. The community feared that their businesses and homes would be taken away. The rise of the Communist party discouraged most of them from engaging in religious activities.

The migration still continues. Many young people have made aliyah to Israel in hopes of finding a Jewish spouse. Many of Anay’s friends have immigrated to Israel, but she is determined to stay in Havana with her parents and continue to rebuild the Jewish community. When Anay became involved with the synagogue, she convinced her grandparents who had neglected their religion amidst the political controversy in the ’60s, to rejoin the shul.

Despite the shrinking Jewish population in Cuba, the remaining families are optimistic and committed to keeping Judaism alive in their own way.

“For us, a minyan is eight people, the Torah and God,” explained Alberto Zilberstein Toruncha, the president of Adath Israel Synagogue.

Throughout the history of the Jewish people, dating as far back as Moses in Egypt, resilience has always been a characteristic that differentiates and strengthens our faith.

The Jewish community in Havana is a testament to that.