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October 2017 – World Passage, Ltd.

The History of Jews in Cuba – Part 2

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The problem of anti-Semitism, literally disappeared during W.W.II. After the war, there was a large influx of immigrants from Europe and by the 1950s, when Batista (the last American-supported dictator) ruled; a vibrant community of fifteen thousand Jews existed. Ashkenazim accounted for some three-quarters of the community with 75% lived in Havana and the rest in the rural provinces. However, after the Castro led revolution in 1959 and until 1961, over 90% of these Jews fled the country and, along with many of their non-Jewish countrymen, moved to the United States, mainly Miami, Florida, parts of New Jersey and New York. Others went to various Latin American countries or Europe. Some Jews moved to Israel. The Reform movement, an American led group, was present during most of the 20th century. It came to an end when the last Reform rabbi left for the United States after the Castro revolution. By 1989, Cuba’s practicing Jewish population was depleted to a low of 800 people or less.

Although the Castro led revolution was not directed against Jews, it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily middle class private business oriented. The reason for the flight was not anti-Semitism, but the economic shift from capitalism to communism. The majority of those who remained were either firm believers in the communist system that frowned on religious practice, were intermarried with strong non-Jewish family attachments, or were too poor to leave. Either way, they were concerned for their economic welfare if they would be labeled “Believers.” Thus most Jews let go of their religious practices and those born after 1955 were too young to have ever experienced any form of Judaism.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated and withdrew their economic partnership with Cuba in 1989, the economy took a severe turn downward and common everyday items necessary for basic survival were in short supply. In desperation for spiritual support, people began turning to the various religious institutions for comfort and hope. The government, recognizing the needs of the people, changed the law that forbade “Believers” in any religious persuasion to be members of the party. This change allowed people to practice religion while keeping top echelon jobs. The previous law also kept children of “Believers from attending the best schools and made it difficult for these people to gain admission to the University, thereby limiting job opportunities and economic advancement. The old law did, however, protect against national, religious or racial hate and that has not changed. The new law gave Jews, along with all Cubans, freedom to worship, and the opportunity to receive ritual items and kosher holiday food from abroad. In addition, the distribution of kosher beef that had been in effect since the Revolution for registered members of the various synagogue communities continued as the government recognized that these people needed beef rather than the pork available in the ration stores.

Communist Cuba maintained normal relations with Israel until the 1967 War when its foreign policy became firmly anti-Zionist. It joined the Third World, in 1973, in severing diplomatic ties but Aliyah which began at the time of the creation of the state of Israel and continued after the Communist Revolution did not end when the political relationship changed. In fact, there has been an increase in Aliyah since the renewal of religious life after 1991.

Please revisit soon for Part 3!