¡Viva Los Jewbanos!

Viva la revolución,” “the motherland is humanity,” and “socialism or death” - these were some of the billboard slogans that welcomed our Jewish American humanitarian group to Havana in August 2012.

Our shorts and T-shirt-clad twenty and thirty something's managed to get through Cuban customs and were on our way to meet Havana’s Jewish community. As emissaries of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), we were a group of 27 Diaspora Jews fortunate to participate in JDC Entwine’s young professional trip to Havana.

About 1,500 Jews live in Cuba today compared to about 15,000 in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution.

In our five days in Havana, we traveled to each of the three Jewish religious establishments - the Orthodox shul called Adath Israel, the Sephardic center, and the Patronato or Beit Shalom, effectively the JCC of Havana - and the Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery, ironically called "Beit Ha-Chaim" or house of life.

As part of our trip to Cuba,  we brought toiletries and medicines for the JDC-supported pharmacy on the second floor of the Patronato, where Dr. Behar, one of three doctors who help keep the pharmacy up and running, explained that each month JDC employees, Argentinean-born Alejandra and Luciano, compile a list of the most-needed medical supplies which JDC’s New York City based professionals gather and bring on their bi-monthly trip to Havana.

At the pharmacy, we learned how the Cuban Jews transport the medicines to those who need them most if they are unable to pick them up at “El Patronato” due to debilitating medical conditions. Thanks to outside support from the JDC and other organizations, the Patronato has two vans that facilitate this much-needed community service.

As we learned more about this dynamic and salsa-savvy Jewish community, and got to know the Cuban Jews – endearingly called “Jewbans” in Miami – it became clear to me how central to their Cuban Jewish identity the ‘Cuban’ aspect was.

During our various meetings with members of Havana’s Jewish community, some on our trip asked about aliya: why don’t more Cubans emigrate to Israel or the US?  While about 80 individuals do make aliya from Cuba every year, we were told "am Yisrael chai b'cuba:" the nation of Israel lives in Cuba.

I imagine that, like every Jewish Diaspora community, there is a constant struggle between allegiances to your Jewish roots versus your identity as a member of your nation. The common question in the U.S. is whether one considers him or herself a Jewish American or an American Jew.

The JDC has been active in helping sustain Cuban Jewry since 1991, when Cuba changed its constitutional definition of an atheist country to a non-religious country, effectively sanctioning religious groups to travel to Cuba. The JDC seeks to facilitate Jewish life and sustain Jewish communities in more than 70 countries around the world - to enable Jews to live proudly and freely wherever they are.

In Cuba, this translates to a privileged community when one compares the Jewish population to the non-Jewish Cuban people. However, Jews still receive ration cards like everyone else, despite the perks of belonging to a synagogue and benefiting from JDC, Federations and other sources of donations. In other words, the Jewish Cubans are still limited by sparse access to the Internet, phone calls to outside Cuba, and general disconnectedness from the outside world, which is why JDC and other Jewish trips to Cuba are so important.

As Adela Dworkin, President of the Cuban Jewish community told us, "When you come here we feel that we are not isolated."

As Rosh Hashana welcomes us into the 5773rd Jewish year this week, I am reminded and thankful of the strength of Diaspora communities around the world and will always remember the trip I took with the JDC to meet the Jews of Havana. Even though they are living under a dictatorship, my Cuban hermanos (brothers and sisters) love their country just like I love mine. And though the numbers are dwindling, conversion to Judaism within Cuba remains constant because of intermarriage (which works the opposite way than in the U.S.).

With continued outside support and interest, I sincerely hope that Cuban Jewry is here to stay. As our visit with Mrs. Dworkin wrapped up, she reminded us that “this is a wonderful country and we deserve a better life.” Amen and shana tova to all of am Yisrael, from New York to Santiago and Petach Tikvah to Havana.

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September 20, 2012 at 10:35 AM

 

 

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