Cuba’s Jewish community has shrunk over several decades, but bolstered by the efforts of organizations that support it spiritually and financially, it is more vibrant than at any time since the 1959 revolution.
The “predominant” organization assisting the 1,500-member community, largely centered in Havana, is B’nai B’rith. Through its Cuban Jewish Relief Project, it has refurbished synagogues, donated religious articles, provided aid, and sent missions since 1995.
“These truly are missions,” said project vice chair Stuart Cooper during a Feb. 21 program sponsored by the men’s club at Temple Beth El of Somerset. He and his wife, Karen, also a project board member, spoke about their experiences on seven missions. Stuart also spoke to NJJN in a phone interview.
The Livingston couple showed photos of community members engaged in Jewish ritual in their homes and synagogues. The community once numbered 15,000, but most left for the United States after the 1959 communist revolution.
“Since 1993, when the Cuban government decided people could openly practice their religion and still be a member of the communist party, religion has made a big comeback,” said Stuart.
B’nai B’rith was issued a religious license by the U.S. Treasury Department allowing it to run up to four missions annually despite the American embargo on Cuba. Applications of mission members must be approved by the Cuban government.
“We take about 25 people, and we’re very careful to follow the mandates of the religious license,” said Karen, who said they have visited homes, universities, and religious institutions without problems. From the very first, they were impressed with the community’s determination to live active Jewish lives and educate their young.
“We were surprised to find so many young people,” she said. “We were expecting to find an older community, but there are lots of children.”
Another pleasant surprise was learning “there is absolutely no anti-Semitism in Cuba,” said Karen. The government does not allow discrimination against anyone, she said, and “they enforce it.”
However, Stuart said, everyone is “equally poor.” He asked one man what he did when he needed a new shirt. The response: “I don’t eat.”
One of the project’s most important initiatives is its Tzedakah Fund, which is currently helping 90 Jews who are chosen by the B’nai B’rith Cuba Lodge based on such factors as income, age, and involvement in the Jewish community.