Monday, February 11, 2013

Cuba Part II - The Jews of Cuba

The first recorded Jew to set foot on Cuba was Luis de Torres.  Luis converted to avoid the Spanish Expulsion in 1492.  And he was hired by Christopher Columbus to serve as an interpreter.  However the first real settlement of Jews in Cuba began in 1834 when a handful of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews settled in Cuba.

The real growth in the Cuban Jewish population (or Juban as many refer to themselves), began in the early 20th century with many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe.  Unable to find their way into the United States due to immigration quotas, many fled to Latin America.

During the 1920s and 30s, these Jews founded a number of synagogues and communities throughout Cuba.  At its peak there were over 15,000 Jews living in Cuba.  However this all changed with Castro's conquest of Cuba in 1958.  The vast majority of Cuba's Jews fled the island, with many of them, like their compatriots, settling in South Florida.

Today there are an estimated 1500 Jews remaining in Cuba, though we heard numbers as low as 1258.  The majority of these Cuban Jews live in Havanah, though there are still small pockets of Jews living in outlying communities as well.

The main purpose of our trip was to visit with the Jews of Cuba and to bring them much needed supplies and donations from the States.  To this end we spent time with members of the Sephardic Center, the Patronado, and with Jews living in Cienfuegos.

 Our first day visiting the Sephardic Center

Inside the Patronado
The Patronado (the arch predates McDonalds, or so we were told)
Outside the Patronado
We learned a few interesting tidbits along the way.  First off, Cuba has never been a strongly religious country.  Though it was under Catholic rule for centuries, the Inquisition never really followed the Jews living in Cuba.  This was in part because the Cubans were not really all that passionate about being Catholic.  As a result there have been almost no instances of Antisemitism on the Island.  Of course it doesn't hurt that almost no Cubans have an idea of what a Jew is, but that is another story.

Jews also have a special status in Cuban society.  What this means is that until the recent immigration reform in Cuba just a couple of weeks ago, Jews were among the only people who could immigrate off the island by making Aliyah to Israel.  The problem for the Cuban Jewish community is that this means many of their young people are leaving the island seeking out better economic opportunities.

The Cuban Jewish community also now refers to themselves as Conservative, though truth be told, they are a mixture of all the various denominations.  There is an extremely high intermarriage rate, and the only people who can convert to Judaism are those who are married to a Jewish Cuban.  They don't want people taking advantage of the immigration exception.

I'll be writing more about Cuba's Jewish community in subsequent blogs, but needless to say, they were incredibly welcoming and it is amazing to see such a small group so passionate about reviving and keeping alive our people's heritage in such a challenging place.

From the Stone Floor outside the home of a Jewish Family in Cienfuegos

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