My Love Affair with Cuba’s Jewish Community
The story of the Jews of Cuba is at once tragic and triumphant. Before the 1959 revolution, 15,000 Jews lived on the island, having immigrated there from all over the world to find their fortunes in tobacco, rum, textiles, and sugar cane. They built magnificent synagogues: Beit Shalom/The Patronato Jewish Community Center, the Sephardic Synagogue, and Beit Yaakov, the Orthodox synagogue that now houses a beautiful upstairs museum sanctuary. Most of the wealthiest Jews fled to the United States before the revolution and today, the island has roughly 1,000 Jewish souls.
When Fidel Castro visited the Patronato at Hanukkah and learned of the Maccabee rebels who fought for freedom, he allowed the Jewish community to practice Judaism within the Communist regime. For decades, the community struggled to keep its Jewish roots vibrant and alive with help from Jewish groups worldwide, including many Reform congregations whose members have visited over the last few decades.
Since 2001, B’nai B’rith International has brought crucial aid and humanitarian supplies to Jewish families in Cuba, helping provide a better way of life and when possible, the Joint Distribution Committee has provided rabbis and cantors to serve the community. With guidance and support from the many groups and individuals who assist this faithful, cultural mecca of Jewish life, Cuba’s Jewish community is once again, beginning to thrive, grow, and prosper.
My love affair with the Jewish community of Cuba began with my first mission to the country in 2005. When I arrived, I learned quickly that my guitar did all the talking. The reaction to my first concert at the Sephardic Synagogue brought tears and smiles to the elderly and young alike. Many were immigrants from Poland and the Yiddish songs I shared had not been heard since childhood! Their reaction sparked my personal mission to help the Jewish community of Cuba and I decided to record a CD of the songs I’d sung at that concert and donate the proceeds to help provide the community with basic necessities, including food, medicine, soap, dental supplies, clothes, and shoes. Since then, through additional concerts and humanitarian missions to Cuba, I have distributed Jewish books and CDs to all the Jewish families around the island.
During the next decade, I returned to Cuba four more times, nurturing the relationships I had built and continuing to share much needed humanitarian aid, music, and people-to-people programming with wonderful Jewish communities around the island.
In 2012 I returned to Cuba once again, this time with two colleagues, Cantors Dana Anasi and Deborah Martin, along with Sephardic singer and performer Gerard Edery, who joined us for multiple concerts all over the island. The highlight of that trip was the dedication of the then-new Am Shalom synagogue and community center in Santa Clara, where Claudia Barlia, a young woman whom I had followed since she was a child, became bat mitzvah!
My fifth humanitarian mission to Cuba was in 2017, when I returned to Cuba to find the Jewish communities thriving and growing. The open trade sponsored by the Obama administration had been good to the communities and the support from groups around the world was evident. Visiting cruise ships now bring tourists from the U.S., who take Jewish heritage tours as off-ship options.
Recently, the American Conference of Cantors, the professional association of Reform cantors in North America, sponsored a mission to Cuba, where six cantors led a beautiful Shabbat service for Havana’s Jewish community and regaled members with a concert at the Patronato.
Next January, I will again journey to Cuba, where conditions have deteriorated for people throughout the island. Diplomatic relations are strained and the embargo has kept food and badly needed supplies from reaching those in need. Our help is crucial and I’ve resolved to support the community in every way possible.
Many of my friends from the island have made aliyah (moving to Israel to live) and I am able to see them there when I visit. Many more remain in Cuba, where they continue to nurture their Jewish heritage, which just a few decades ago was disappearing.
When I return to Cuba in January 2020, I will hear and share the story of the Jews of Cuba: a story of survival, rebirth, and reconnection with the Jewish cultures of the world. It is through our missions and essential support that Cuba’s Jews can experience a bit of normalcy and taste the world as it should be: free, prosperous, with access to basic necessities.
May the future of Cuba's Jews continue to change for the better and may their lives be bright with hope and promise. Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish People live) and Viva Cuba (Long live Cuba)!