In Havana, a Synagogue Perseveres

By Jessica Nieberg and Jared Swedler

HAVANA – To a pair of Jewish-American visitors to the Centre Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, the rituals and rhythms of the Saturday morning Sabbath services were familiar. Members of the congregation read the Torah in quickly paced bursts of Hebrew, as the worshippers came together to chant the final prayers in unison.

The Centre Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba is part of a community of about 1,500 Jews living in Cuba (Photo by Jessica Nieberg)

The Centre Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba is part of a community of about 1,500 Jews living in Cuba Photo by Jessica Nieberg

The tight-knit congregation is part of a community of 1,500 Jews living in Cuba, most of them in Havana. The Centre has no rabbi; two members led the service on a recent Saturday morning.

The congregation has kept its traditions going even in challenging times, as Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in the late 1950s ended private business, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s only benefactor, brought deep economic troubles in the 1990s.

The Jewish community was kept alive by mostly elder, male members.

Now, the elderly members worry about how their ranks will be replenished as many Cuban youths, among them Jews, leave for countries offering more economic opportunities.

“He’s at the age that they leave, but he hasn’t said anything, yet,” said Myra Levy, president of the congregation, pointing to an 18-year-old, one of the few youths left. “The key word is yet!”

On this Saturday, the Jewish community is alive and well. About two dozen people sat in the olive green velvet chairs of the chapel. Four Torahs, each more than 100 years old, stood in the ark at the back of the pulpit. Five cherry wood thrones with scalloped edges and intricate engravings, Hebrew writing and lion heads carved out of the tip of each armrest stood nearby.

Haim Cheni, left, the congregation’s unofficial historian and volunteer caretaker, shows the synagogue’s Torahs to visitors. (Photo by Jessica Nieberg)

Haim Cheni, left, the congregation’s unofficial historian and volunteer caretaker, shows the synagogue’s Torahs to visitors. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

Typically, five or six women gather on Fridays to make challah for Kiddush, the meal offered to congregants after Sabbath services. During a recent visit, heavy rains prevented the women from meeting, so they served matzah instead, with a shot of aloe juice on the side, a Cuban twist on the more commonly used beverage, wine.

Being Cuban and Jewish “complement each other very well,” said Lissette Falbalah, who mothers the 18-year-old Levy referred to. Falbalah’s was one of the last Jewish families to settle in Cuba just before the revolution. Her mother emigrated from Istanbul and her father was born in Cuba. She herself was born in Santiago de Cuba, a city in southeast Cuba about 500 miles from Havana.

According to its members, the congregation is part of a long history of Judaism in Cuba.

“Judaism has been on the island of Cuba since the time of Columbus,” said Haim Cheni, 60, the congregation’s unofficial historian and volunteer caretaker.

The Centre Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. (Photo by Jessica Nieberg)

The Centre Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba, in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

He said the Jewish population surged in the first half of the 1900s, because of Cuba’s ample business opportunities and persecution in Europe. By 1959, when Castro came into power, more 20,000 Jews lived in Cuba, he estimated.

Many Jews left Cuba when Castro nationalized all businesses, a migration mainly spurred by a lack of economic opportunity at home, Cheni said. A revival occurred in the 1990s when Castro proclaimed religious tolerance and Jews returned to the pews of their synagogues, he said.

Twenty-five years later, the Jewish community’s vibrancy extends well past Shabbat services. Every Sunday morning, the congregation offers a class in Jewish traditions, culture and Hebrew. Members, young and old, receive free transportation to the synagogue. Other social services, such as medical prescriptions and activities for the elderly, are provided. Many elderly Jews in Cuba have no family here, so, three times a week, the synagogue offers workshops, whether it be on arts and crafts or exercising, said Falbalah.

Among the challenges the synagogue faces is that it has no rabbi of its own. A rabbi comes from Chile about 20 times a year for special occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs. At other times, congregants lead the services.

Many Jews find it difficult to keep a Kosher home in a society where rations are enforced, according to Falbalah. The government allows a kosher butcher shop and Jews receive one kilo of kosher meat per month on their ration card.

The synagogue stays afloat with donations from the Joint Distribution Community, an international humanitarian organization that assists Jewish communities. It also receives financial help from Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada and other humanitarian groups.

Shabbat services, led by members because the synagogue has no rabbi, are held in this room (Photo by Jared Swedler)

Shabbat services, led by members because the synagogue has no rabbi, are held in this room Photo by Jared Swedler

Levy said the main problem facing the community is the same one facing Cuba in general: the large numbers of young people leaving to find economic opportunity elsewhere. For Jews who want to immigrate to Israel, it is relatively easy, because Israel grants automatic citizenship to any Jew, a practice known as “making Aliyah” or the right to return.

“We don’t have problems because we are Jewish, we have problems because we are Cuban,” Levy said.

Yet members are confident they will keep their synagogue alive.

“As long as someone here feels Jewish, inside,” said Falbalah, “we will be okay.”

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