Cuba, officially the Republic of Cuba, is an island country in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba comprises the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Today, the Jewish population of Cuba is approximately 500.
- Camaguey, Santiago & Havana
- The 1959 Revolution
- Operation Cigar
- Present-Day Jewish Life
- Cuba-Israel Relations
While it remains unclear when Jews first arrived
in Cuba, it is popular lore that three Jewish men arrived after the expulsion from Spain in
1492. Some believe that these Jews traveled to Cuba with Columbus:
Luis de Torres on the Santa Maria, Juan de Cabrera on La Pinta, and
Rodrigo de Triana on La Nina. All three were Marranos, or forced Jewish
converts to Catholicism. Francisco Gomez de Leon, a Jew, was put on
trial during the Inquisition in Havana. He was later executed in Cartagena and his large fortune
was confiscated. There is little information about Jews in Cuba until
the late 19th century, the beginning of the organized Cuban
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews immigrated
to Cuba from Brazil. They were
persecuted under Portuguese control. New Jewish immigrants established trade in Cuba and, by the
18th century, Cuban Jewish trade reached Amsterdam, The
Netherlands and Hamburg, Germany.
Jews continued to be harrassed during this time, and many of the originial
Jewish immigrants assimilated and acculturated into Cuban society.
In the late 1800's, Jews from the Dutch Antilles
settled in Cuba. They supported Jose Martí, who liberated Cuba
from Spanish colonial rule in 1898. Many Jewish traders pursuing business in the New World set
up outposts on the island. In 1898, after the Spanish-American War,
Jews established a permanent presence in Cuba. American Ashkenazi
Jews born in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe immigrated to
Cuba to work for U.S.-owned plantations and businesses. In 1906, 11
American Jews founded Cuba's first synagogue, the United Hebrew
Congregation, a Reform synagogue that conducted services in English. This is considered the
official beginning of the Cuban Jewish community.
memorial at the Ashkenazic cemetery in Havana dedicated to the
6 million murdered Jews
Cuban Jews were involved in all aspects of Cuban
society and economy. Jews were instrumental in the sugar cane business;
they brought the sugar cane from Madeira to Brazil and to the Antilles.
Jews also were the first ones to use a protective cloth used when
growing tobacco to protect the plants from sun and wind. These protective
coverings are still used today to produce the highest quality tobaccos
leaves in the world.
A large number of Jews immigrated to Cuba from 1910
until 1920, including Sephardic Jews from Turkey. Many of these Jews came from Eastern Europe and
used Cuba as a stopover en route to the United States, which had a strict
quota system at that time. Many decided to stay since there was little anti-Semitism in Cuba, as well as
good weather. Many of the new immigrants from Europe prospered in Cubans
garment industry. By 1924, there were 24,000 Jews living in Cuba.
In 1921, Rodolfo Zillon Namer founded Cuba's third official synagogue, Union Israelita Bnai Zion, in Holguin. He was related to Roberto Namer, a Syrian Jew who was nominated in 1935 as Cuba's consul to Palestine.
Jews were called "Polacos" (Pollacks) by
the Cubans, even if they were not from Poland. In fact, all immigrant
Jews and non-Jews without an English accent were called Polacos,
including Germans, French, Hungarians and Turks.
In the 1930s, a Central Jewish Committee was founded
for all the Jewish groups in Cuba. Jews continued to seek asylum in
Cuba during the Holocaust. One Havana-bound
German liner, the St. Louis,
was denied access and the Jews were unable to depart from the ship.
In 1944, Jews from Antwerp who were able to find refuge in Cuba began
a diamond-polishing business. In 1952, only 12,000 Jews were living
Camaguey, Santiago & Havana
Two synagogues were built in Camaguey, in the 1920's. Shevet Ajim served the Ashkenazi,
while Tiferet Israel served the Sephardim.
The Jewish population of Camaguey grew to more than 800 people before
A Jewish community was founded in Santiago in 1924, called the Jewish
Society of Eastern Cuba. The society was housed in a rented space
until 1939, when it finally moved into a new building, which became
the Synagogue of Santiago de Cuba. Two Rabbis served in the
synagogue, Senor Isaac Chiprut Confri, from 1924 until 1943, and
Senor Victor Farin Sarfati, from 1946 until 1967. Santiagos Jewish
population consisted mainly of Sephardim from Turkey, who came to Cuba seeking a better life. At the beginning
of World War II, Ashkenazi Jews from Poland arrived in Santiago
fleeing Nazi persecution. The
Jewish Society remained active until 1959; after the Revolution, most
of the Jews immigrated to other countries.
| Tallis salesman in pre-1959 Cuba (photo by Bob
Havana has the largest Jewish community in Cuba.
During its height, more than 12,000 Jews lived in Cuba and, of that,
75 percent lived in Havana. Havana had five synagogues (including one
Sephardic synagogue built in 1914), a Kosher restaurant, one Jewish
high school and five Jewish elementary schools.
At the time of the Revolution in 1959, Cubas
Jewish population peaked at 15,000 people.
The 1959 Revolution
Approximately 94 percent of Cubas Jewish
population fled after the Revolution. Some settled in Israel, thanks
to secret diplomatic efforts made by the Canadian government. While
the Revolution did not target Jews specifically, they did suffer
economically along with other members of Cubas middle class.
Most the remaining Jews lived in Havana. Those who
chose to stay did so because they were either too old or too poor to
leave, were assimilated into Cuban society or believed in the
An interesting mix of cultural freedom and Anti-Zionist feelings prevailed in Cuba. Cuban Jews were
discriminated against, along with other Cubans who were members of
religious groups. Jews and Christians and other religious people had
restricted access to jobs and universities. Despite school and job
restrictions, Jews were able to practice their religion. They were
permitted to buy and distribute kosher food and were able to receive
donations from Canada and other countries for special Passover and New Years food products.
Protection against national, religious and racial hate was also a
part of the Cuban criminal code.
On the other hand, Cuba permitted training camps
for Palestinians terrorists on its soil, both Abu Nidal and George Habasch trained in Cuba. Cuba
also published Anti-Zionist, anti-Israel propaganda pieces and banned
the books by Anne Frank, Isaac
Bashevis Singer and Elie
Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel in
1973, along with other Third World countries. Israel considered Cuba
to be one of its worst enemies in the United
Nations. Repeatedly, Cuba participated in embargoes and sanctions
against Israel and voted for the infamous
resolution stating "Zionism equals racism."
In the late 1960's, a number of Jews were sent to
forced labor camps for political dissenters, religious peoples, gays
and exit applicants. Jewish activists were under constant
Due to this atmosphere, Jewish life suffered in Cuba,
but never disappeared. Jews still could pray in shuls and attend Jewish Sunday schools. In the 1970's, the synagogue in
Santiago, the school in Havana and the Zionist Union of Cuba were
closed. Another synagogue in Havana, the United Hebrew Congregation,
was abandoned in the 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s, the Patronato, Havanas
main synagogue, could barely recruit a minyan. Some Jewish families
continued to practice Judaism at home and celebrate the major holidays.
Cuban Jewry faced increased assimilation and its elders were worried
about the communitys future.
In the early 1980s, the Tikkun Olam Hebrew Sunday
School opened in Havana to address the needs of Cubas dwindling
young Jewish population. The school grew with time, due to the leadership
of Dr. Moises Asis, the principal and one of Cubas few Jewish
In the early 1990s, Operation Cigar was launched.
In the period of five years, more than 400 Cuban Jews secretely immigrated
to Israel. Another 200 Cuban Jews
are currently in the process of making aliyah. The details surrounding
the operation are unclear; some claim Margarita Zapata, a relative
of one of Castros close colleagues, convinced Castro to permit
the Jews to emigrate. Castro did not want to publicize the emigration
because it might appear he was allowing special arrangements to be
made for Cubas Jews. While, officially, Cubans are allowed to
emigrate, most do not have the finances to do so.
The first group of 70 Cuban Jews arrived in Israel
in 1994. The Jewish Agency eventually covered the initial exit fee
of $150, which was more than fifteen times the average monthly wage
in Cuba at the time.
Present-Day Jewish Life
Despite anti-Israel sentiment that existed in
Cuba, the only time blatant anti-Semitic attacks occurred in all of Cuban history was during the Gulf
War. Arab students threw stones at Adas Israel Synagogue in
Havana, but the violence was quelled immediately and no one was
Because of the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the end of the Cold War, as well as the economic hardships
due to the U.S. embargo, Cuba sought to liberalize some of its policies.
In 1991, a law permitted members of the Communist Party to participate
in religious associations. This was the first step toward a rejuvenation
of Jewish life in Cuba.
|Havana's Patronato Synagogue
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was instrumental in rebuilding Cuba’s Jewish population. Since 1992, the JDC has sent rabbis and community organizers to help with education and to perform ceremonies and has established a computer educational center linking the Jewish communities of Havana, Santiago and Camaguey. The JDC also provides basic commodities, which are scarce in Cuba, such as food and special shipments of items needed for Jewish holidays. Health services and medication is also provided by the JDC, which are distributed through a special pharmacy in Havana. The Castro regime has never stopped U.S. or Canadian Jewish organizations from delivering wheelchairs, school supplies and kosher food to Cuban Jews. Aside from the JDC, B’nai Brith and other international organizations are also providing relief to Cuba’s Jewish community.
Three synagogues in Havana survived the Revolution,
one Orthodox, one Conservative and one Sephardic. According
to Adela Dworin, president of Havana’s largest synagogue, the
Patronato, more than 85 percent of Cuba’s estimated Jewish population
of 1,500 lives in Havana. However, sources in Miami estimate that
only 600 to 800 Jews remain in Havana, as nearly 700 Cuban Jews have
immigrated to Israel in the past 10 years. Havana’s Jewish Sunday
school teaches more than 150 students, ranging in age from 4 to 60.
Classes are held in the sanctuary because of lack of space elsewhere.
Santiago’s synagogue was reopened in 1996 and served 90 members of Santiago’s Jewish population. A women’s organization was started and a Hadassah chapter, run by Cuban Jewish doctors, began distributing medicine to the sick. There is a synagogue in Camaguey, and Shabbat services are held at private homes in Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, and Sancti Spiritus.
|Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba
Outreach programs have started to reach out to interfaith
couples living in Cubas remote provinces, in many instances the
spouses have converted to Judaism and are raising their children Jewish.
More than 60 percent of Cubas Jewish population are converts,
according to the Joint Distribution Committee. Israels Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, visited
Cuba in 1994 and deemed the conversions valid.
Currently, there is no rabbi in Cuba, but Rabbi Shmuel
Szteinhendler (a rabbi in Santiago, Chile) is considered the Chief
Rabbi. He travels to Cuba several times a year to perform weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, circumcisions,
and baby namings.
Typically weddings are performed for multiple couples because the
rabbi is there so infrequently. Jewish religious services are held
routinely on Friday nights and Saturday mornings at the Beth Shalom
(El Patronato) Synagogue.
The Hotel Raquel in Havana caters to Jewish visitors.
The top floor rooms have names like "Sinai" and "Gallilee."
There are stained glass windows with Jewish themes and contemporary
paintings by Cuban Jewish artist Jose Luis Farinas. The phone system
plays the theme song from Schindler's List when callers are put
on hold. There is a kosher style restaurant serving gefilte fish, Israeli
salad, cheese blintzes and Hungarian goulash.
There are plans to create a Jewish square on Acosta
Street where the Adath Israel Synangogue is located.
In December 2006, the Cuban Jewish community celebrated
its 100th anniversary. Festivities began with a cultural gala at Havana’s
National Fine Arts Museum and will continue all month with religious
services, music, dancing, parties, and speeches.
Although Fidel Castro has been respectful towards the
Jews, he has been generally hostile toward Israel. Originally Castro
was very supportive of Israel, mostly due to sympathy he had for Jews
as victims of facism and his identification of the State of Israel as
a socialist country. As a result, Cuban foreign policy was generally
sympathetic towards Israel. Following the Six-Day
War in 1967, things changed. Castro broke relations with the Israel
just before the 1973 Yom Kippur
War. He also sent Cuban soldiers to participate in battles on the
Cuban and Israeli flags side-by-side
In 1974 the Cuban government invited Yasser
Arafat to visit Cuba and provided advance training for the PLO and other Palestinian military organizations. On October 12, 1979,
Castro made a speech at the U.N. claiming that Israel was committing
genocide against the Palestinian people, similar to the "genocide
that the Nazis once visited on the Jews."
Opposing Israel has led Castro to aspire to the leadership
of non-aligned nations and to gain support from Arab countries in
the United Nations. It also has become a way for Cuba's leader to
take a stand against imperialism and express his hatred of the power
concentrated in the United States.
By the late 1980s, relations warmed up somewhat.
In 1988, an official delegation from Cuba visited Israel to study irrigation methods. In 1994, Israel's chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau visited
Cuba and was cordially recieved by Fidel Castro. Israel has also taken advantage of Cuba's new openness to foreign investment,
investing in the Cuban citrus industry and inciting the anger of the
Sources: Abel, David. "Cubas Jews Take Heart
from First New Synagogue Since Revolution. The Jews of Cuba. Jewish
Arnold, Michael S. " Castros Jewish bargaining chip." Jerusalem Post October,
Asis, Dr. Moises. "Judaism in Cuba 1959 - 1999: A Personal Account." The Jews of Cuba.
Bandler, Kenneth. "Jewish Youth lead the way in a long-isolated
Jews of Cuba.
Cuba. The Jews of Cuba.
Frank, Ben G. "The Jewish Traveler: Havana". Hadassah Magazine,
January 2005.History of the Community. The
Jews of Cuba.
Letter from Havana. The
Jews of Cuba.
"Operation Cigar: A Not-So-Secret Cuban Aliya." Jewish
Agency for Israel October 14, 1999.
"Castro can’t make it, but Jews
in Cuba mark 100 years on island." JTA News, November 30, 2006.
Jewish Community of Cuba by Jay Levinson.
Photos courtesy of Paul Margolis, Mindy Shapiro, Robert Levine, and
Lisa Snider. Header image courtesy of Jose