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Jews first settled in Cuba following the Spanish-American War in 1889. It was then that American Ashkenazi Jews born in Romania and Eastern Europe came to Cuba to work for American-owned plantations and businesses. They were instrumental in the sugar cane business bringing sugar cane from Madeira to Brazil and to the Antilles. Jews were also known to grow tobacco in the country.

In 1906, the United Hebrew Congregation, Cuba's first synagogue was founded. A Reform synagogue, it conducted services in English and is credited with marking the official beginning of an organized Jewish community on the island. Two more synagogues were built in Camaguey, in the 1920's; Shevet Ajim served the Ashkenazi community, while Tiferet Israel served the Sephardim.

There were 24,000 Jews living in Cuba by 1924. In the 1930's, a Central Jewish Committee was founded for all the Jewish groups in Cuba. After World War II, the older immigrants and the new generation of Cuban-born Jews had become much more comfortable. However, they were utterly exiled from the higher echelons of Cuban society. On the other hand, their children earned admittance to universities, becoming successful merchants and manufacturers. Even during this prosperity however, there was never a united Jewish community, leaving three disassociated Jewish groups. These groups included a small number of English-Speaking, American Jews who had come to Cuba for business opportunities and who had become very wealthy, the Sephardic Jews, many of whom resided in the provinces and the Ashkenazim, most of whom lived in Havana. Jews are also known to have sought asylum in Cuba during the Holocaust.

IBy 1952, only 12,000 Jews were living in Cuba. At the time of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba’s Jewish population reached 15,000. In 1959 about 75 percent of the working Jewish population was engaged in small-scale retail trade, while 15 percent owned large stores, and 10 percent were in engaged in the production of consumer goods. Cuba’s Jews saw their country as a place of opportunity and comfort. Since most of Cuba’s Jews had been engaged in business or commerce, the large part of those who identified themselves as Jews fell into the category of enemies of the revolution.

The majority of Cuba’s Jewish population fled after the Revolution. Those who chose to stay did so because they were either too old or too poor to leave, were assimilated into Cuban society or participated in the Revolution.

In 1963 a census estimated that 2,586 Cuban Jews had remained, representing 1,022 families. These numbers were based on a Passover registration seeking permission to purchase matzoh. Most were from Havana, and two-thirds of the families were Ashkenazi in origin. Of these Jews who remained, an estimated forty-five percent were unemployed, living off gradual sales of their possessions.

Three synagogues in Havana survived the Revolution, one Orthodox, one Conservative and one Sephardic.

The exodus of Cuba’s Jews doomed the continuance of Jewish day schools. By the end of the 1960-61 school year, only 200 students were left, with the high school virtually empty.

By December 1961, only one Jewish school, Colgio Theodor Herzl in Miramar, continued to function, becoming the public Albert Einstien School, funded and controlled by government.

By 1962, Ashkenazi and Sephardic customs became conflated as the community shrunk significantly. The leading kosher restaurant was nationalized, advertising its food in French as “la cuisine Yiddish.” In the 1970's, the synagogue in Santiago, the school in Havana and the Zionist Union of Cuba were closed.

The Cuban government also took political aim at Israel, severing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1973. Repeatedly, Cuba participated in embargoes and sanctions against Israel and voted for the infamous "Zionism equals racism" United Nations resolution. Cuba also published anti-Zionist and anti-Israel propaganda pieces and banned the books by Anne Frank, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel.

By the 1980's another synagogue in Havana, the United Hebrew Congregation, was abandoned. The Patronato, Havana’s main synagogue, could barely recruit a minyan. Cuban Jewry faced a greater rate of assimilation and its older generation was in fear for the community’s future. The Tikkun Olam Hebrew Sunday School opened in Havana to address the needs of Cuba’s disappearing, young, Jewish population.

Finally in 1991, a law permitted members of the Communist Party to participate in religious associations. This was the first step towards a rejuvenation of Jewish life in Cuba.

Cuba Today

There is a synagogue in Camaguey, and Shabbat services are held at private homes in Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, and Sancti Spiritus even though there are no longer any rabbis in Cuba. Havana’s Jewish Sunday school teaches more than 150 students, ranging in age from 4 to 60. Classes are held in the sanctuary because of lack of space. More than 60 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population is converted, according to the Joint Distribution Committee.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was instrumental in rebuilding Cuba’s Jewish population. Since 1992, the JDC has sent rabbis and community organizers to help with education and to perform ceremonies and has established a computer educational center linking the Jewish communities of Havana, Santiago and Camaguey. The JDC also provides basic commodities, which are scarce in Cuba, such as food and special shipments of items needed for Jewish holidays. Health services and medication is also provided by the Cuban Jewish Community, which are distributed through a special pharmacy in Havana. Santiago’s synagogue was reopened in 1996 and served 90 members of Santiago’s Jewish population. In December 2006, the Cuban Jewish community celebrated its 100th anniversary. United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto has been sending a container of Passover food since 1961 for Jews throughout Cuba.

References

References, notes and sources are available upon request.

 

 

 

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