They say Jews are everywhere – and that indeed may be almost true. And although Cuba once had a thriving 15,000 member strong Jewish community, 95% of that population left upon the 1959 communist revolution. So whatever happened to the 5% who remained?
According to a recent feature in Ha’aretz, about 1,200 individuals living in Havana currently identify themselves as Jewish. As explained by writer, Harry D. Wall:
“The Jews of Cuba ‘struggled to survive after the revolution,’ says Mayra Levy, the president of Havana’s Hebrew Sephardic Center. About 95 percent of Cuba’s Jews — some 15,000 people — left the island in 1959, following Fidel Castro’s revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Jewish exodus was fueled by Castro’s attacks on capitalism, in which Jews, mostly merchants and businessmen, were visibly entrenched.
Levy explains that in the years following the regime change, the community lacked leadership. Eventually it started to take shape again. ‘Small as we are, we grew and are today vibrant, maintaining our traditions and activities,’ she says.”
Cuban Jews today are mostly the product of intermarriage, but still strongly identify as Jewish and actively participate in Jewish culture and traditions. Better yet, they are rarely subject to anti-semitism. Aiding in this peaceful existence was Fidel Castro himself, who claimed he was a descendant of conversos. Castro’s personal history likely impacted his policy allowing Jewish Cubans to continue to practice Judaism, despite outright banning any practice of religion within Cuba.
“The U.S. embargo against Cuba, tightened since President Donald Trump assumed office, has impacted the island’s Jewry as much as the general Cuban population. Poverty, lack of basic commodities and rationing prevail. However, there is a steady influx of Jewish tourism. North American visitors are attracted by the proximity of the island, as well as its old-fashioned and exotic character. Many U.S. Jews travel to the island on the ‘people to people’ exemption that allows for religious and educational trips.”
JCC MetroWest’s upcoming trip to Cuba falls within that exemption. From December 5-10, we’ll be guiding attendees through Havana’s cultural institutions, including those within the Jewish community. Trip-goers will have the chance to meet Cuban Jews and see Havana from their unique and special perspective.
For more information on our Cuban jaunt, please contact Gina Goldman: [email protected] or (973) 530-3448.
Learn more about our day and overnight trips here.