Jewish Life in Cuba: Amidst the Poverty There is Richness

March 3, 2016Rabbi Yair Robinson

I recently traveled throughout Cuba with 16 congregants from Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE. At each stop, as we engaged with the island’s history, its challenges, its people, and especially its Jewish communities, I was reminded of the story of Bonchi the Silent.

Bonchi was a poor, righteous man who accepted every heartache and trouble in his life without objection. Upon his death, he ascended the very heights of heaven to the Throne of God, whereupon The Holy One, surrounded by all God’s hosts, offered Bonchi anything as a reward for his piety. In response, the man took only some bread and perhaps a little butter, resulting in groans, as the angels realized his piety was for poverty of imagination as much as anything else.

As I see it, this story has a lot to do with today’s Cuba.

Let me explain.

To say Cuba is a poor country is an achievement in understatement. On average, three houses collapse in Havana daily, and beautiful homes that once housed the wealthy now overflow with 80 or more people who – with average salaries of $20 to $30 a month – have no means to maintain their apartments, many of which sit next to Soviet-era buildings that haven’t seen paint or plaster in some time.

To be sure, we didn’t see shantytowns lacking basic resources that are common in such places as Jamaica, but if you can imagine some of the worst parts of the east side of Wilmington, parts of south Philadelphia, or other struggling and decaying urban settings, you can get a sense of the living conditions.

We were not there to enjoy the sun (which is a good thing because there wasn’t any!) but rather to bring relief supplies to the Jewish communities of Havana and Cienfuegos. Once a thriving community comprising American, Turkish, and German Jews who had fled to Cuba over the years, setting up stores and businesses, many then fled after Fidel Castro’s revolution, leaving a remnant 1500 Jews across the whole island, mostly in the capital.

Despite their small numbers, Jewish citizens have created Jewish life there; they run senior centers and pharmacies, Holocaust museums and clinics. They practice their religion openly and enthusiastically, and have always been permitted to make aliyah, an opportunity many young people have taken.

On erev Shabbat, we were in Havana, where we worshipped with the Ashkenazi Conservative congregation, Bet Shalom, one of three synagogues in the capital. That evening, the youth group made Shabbat dinner and led services. The sanctuary was filled with young adults and teens, and we recognized and followed along in the service they recited – in Hebrew and Spanish.

We also visited the Jewish community in Ciengfuegos, which meets in a room – smaller than one of our religious school classrooms – in the president’s apartment. Lay-led since the last rabbis fled the country in the 1950s and 60s, the community has learned self-reliance, and is thriving and joyous, despite profound dependence on the Jewish communities of North America.

But if you ask a Cuban – Jewish or not – what the future holds, the answer involves unsure looks and even more uncertain words. There is a lot of worry – about becoming Disneyland, or Jamaica, or Shanghai, and about losing essential aspects of their culture. For all their poverty and disenfranchisement, Cubans are proud of their heritage, their country, and, among those who haven’t fled, their shared sense that they’re all in it together; and they don’t want to lose any of it.

At the same time, when I asked Jewish community members about their hopes for the future, they couldn’t articulate their thoughts. Just as Bonchi couldn’t imagine a world of joy, the Cubans I spoke with can’t imagine what life will be like for them five or 10 years down the road. It’s not because they don’t have hopes and dreams – for themselves and their children – nor is it because they lack enthusiasm. Rather, it’s because they possess an innocence and a gentleness. All they can do is keep doing what they have been doing to the best of their ability: singing and praying, maintaining their buildings, their Torahs, their books, their cemeteries, and – most especially – their beloved community, holding it together with pride and love.

Seventeen of us went to Cuba. We brought school supplies and religious items, medicine and canes, clothes and materials and money for the communities we visited. More than what we brought with us, is what we brought home. In addition to new friendships and connections, we have a newfound appreciation for all that we have in this Cuban community, the support we bring to each other, and a humility about the work we do. Perhaps most of all, we gained a new perspective on the power of our heritage, for if Judaism can survive amidst the poverty of Cuba, then surely it can thrive anywhere.

Photo: HarrietAnn Seiner Litwin

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