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Shalom, Cuba: A Jewish Culture Guide

Despite its economic hardships and political situation, the island nation ranks high in education, human development, and possesses an excellent universal health care system. Although the Jewish community has dwindled since its peak pre-Revolution, those who remain, fervently maintains its traditions

By: Sarah Bauder
Published: October 15th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News
A yarmulke with the Cuban flagPic: globalpost.com

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Cuba

A Jewish presence in Cuba has existed for centuries. It’s believed that the first Jews to settle on the island were Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. There is a dearth of concrete information regarding Cuban Jewry until the late 19th century, when the community first became organized.

After the Cuban War of Independence (1895 to 1898) and the subsequent Spanish-American War (1898), Cuba became liberated from centuries of Spanish colonialism. As a result of this newfound freedom, Jews established a permanent presence on the island nation. Eight years later in 1906, the Jewish community in Cuba was officially organized, with the creation of the first synagogue, the Reform United Hebrew Congregation. The subsequent decades saw an influx of Jewish immigration to Cuba.

Prior to the 1959 Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro, there were an estimated 15,000 Jews living in Cuba’s capital city Havana, alone. After the revolution, approximately 90% of the Jewish population left Cuba, in addition to many non-Jews, because of the economic transition from capitalism to communism. Those who remained, either supported communist sentiment or didn’t possess the financial resources to leave. A component to the new Cuban constitution restricted religious freedom, ergo, Jews, Christians, and other religious groups suffered discrimination.

In the following decades, synagogues and Jewish schools throughout the island began closing from lack of attendance. The Cuban Jewish community continued to decline until 1992. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba changed its constitution to allow for religious freedom. Thereafter, the Jewish community began to rejuvenate itself. The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was responsible for assisting in this rejuvenation. The organization did everything from sending rabbis from other Latin American nations to assist in ceremonies, to sending food and medication.

Adath Israel

As of 2007, there were an estimated 1500 Jews residing in Cuba – of that, 1100 called Havana home. There are three synagogues in the city: Synagoga Beth Shalom (El Patronato, which is the city’s largest), Centro Sefaradi, and Adath Israel, which is the only Orthodox synagogue in Cuba. In the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, there is the Comunidad Hebrea Hatikva. Likewise, in Camaguey, Cuba’s third largest city, there is Comunidad Hebrea Teferit Israel. Currently, there is no rabbi residing on the island nation. Rather Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler of Santiago, Chile is considered the current Chief Rabbi of Cuba, and travels to the island to perform weddings and other ceremonies. His visits are sponsored by the JDC.


Although Cuba’s Jewish community is small, like all Cuban people, it is resilient. Despite its economic hardships and political situation, the island nation ranks high in education, human development, and possesses an excellent universal health care system. Although the Jewish community has dwindled since its peak pre-Revolution, those who remain, fervently maintains its traditions. Cuba is a definite must-see.

Links:

http://www.cajm.org/Archive/index.html

http://www.jewishcuba.org/synagogues.html

http://www.jdc.org/

Related articles: Shalom, Cuba, Havana, Jewish, Judaism, Israel, Synagogue, Rabbi, Chile, Travel, Tourism, Vacation, Culture, Guide, History, Spanish
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