The Jewish Presence in Cuba taught by Allen Meyer
On Saturday evening, September 24th, prior to our Selichot Service, 35-40 congregants gathered in the social hall for Havdalah and a fascinating presentation by Allen Meyer on Cuba and its Jewish community.
Only 90 miles from Florida, the people on this Carribbean island 700 miles in length, live in stark contrast to citizens of the United States. While the city squares are framed by a combination of colorful, beautiful buildings, Moorish in architecture and block structures from the Communist regime, the people live in poverty akin to a third world country. Aside from the political variety, there is no crime, and basic needs are met by the government including health care and education.
There is also no anti-Semitism in Cuba and, in fact, the small surviving Jewish community is quite revered. On this humanitarian trip, one of many taken by Jewish groups throughout the US, bringing a proscribed amount of aid, Allen journeyed back to the home of his grandparents who had fled to Cuba shortly after Kristalnacht. On that night, his grandfather had been taken to Buchenwald but because he and his wife already had papers in process, he was allowed to leave. When the opportunity arose to continue on to move to New York, they turned it down; in 1938, Cuba was “paradise.”
Where once 15,000 Jews thrived in Havana alone, now there are approximately 1,500 in all, 1,000 in Havana and the others scattered in smaller towns such as Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. Since the community was pretty well decimated from the time Castro came into power, causing most of the Jews to flee, and the fall of Communism in 1992, it has been a courageous and dedicated challenge to keep Jewish traditions and culture alive. Leaders in the community maintain beautiful collections of Jewish books, art and religious objects and put an emphasis on educating the children.
Through photographs and short videos of Havdalah and other services Allen shared the emotional connection between the visiting Americans and the Jewish Cubans that they met. Photos of Jewish cemeteries showed graves above ground and the oldest as well as one of the newest memorials to Holocaust survivors (including stones from the Warsaw Ghetto) in the world. Although a few synagogues and community centers remain, there is no rabbi; on special occasions, a rabbi from Mexico or other Latin American countries officiates. The largest synagogue, Beth Shalom, houses a public library and a pharmacy which distributes medication and religious items, much of which is donated by Jewish groups similar to the one with which Allen traveled.
Following the presentation, there was a question/answer session and socializing with delicious refreshments. With thoughts of a tiny population of fellow Jews, whom before tonight we knew little to nothing about, we filed into the sanctuary for a moving candlelight Selichot Service.
The evening was a collaboration of the Adult Education & Ritual and Religious Committees.
NOTE: In response to the question about the free medical school program Cuba offers to people from other countries, including the US, Allen has sent a link which describes this outstanding opportunity.