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Havana, Cuba

HAVANA, capital of Cuba; general population: 2,180,000 (2001); estimated Jewish population 1,000 (82% of the Jews in the country).

During colonial times Havana was considered by Spain as "the key to the Americas" for its important strategic location. It was the meeting point of the treasure fleet on its return to Spain. Historians assume that *Crypto-Jews were present among the inhabitants of Havana as well as among the merchants from non-Catholic countries who were involved in illegal commerce with the Spaniards.

The first Jewish group to settle in Havana after Cuban independence (1902) came from the United States. They founded the United Hebrew Congregation in 1906. They were followed by Sephardim, mainly from Turkey, whose communal congregation, Shevet Ahim, was founded in 1914. In the 1920s thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Cuba, hoping to use it as a stepping stone to the U.S. Many of them settled in Havana, where they founded the Centro Israelita (Jewish Center) in 1925, together with a large number of social, religious, cultural, and political organizations. In the late 1930s and during World War II Havana became a temporary haven for thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, using loopholes in Cuba's immigration laws. In May 1939, however, Havana was the scene of the tragic episode of the S.S. *St. Louis , whose passengers were refused landing and were compelled to return to Europe, where many of them perished in extermination camps.

Following World War II the Havana community prospered both economically and socially. In 1951 the Ashkenazi community laid the cornerstone for the Patronato, a magnificent building that symbolized the social mobility and prosperity of Havana Jews. When the Sephardim inaugurated their Sephardi Center, Fidel Castro was already in power.

The Cuban revolution of 1959 marked the decline of Havana Jews. Following the nationalization of private business, around 90% of them emigrated from Cuba, most of them to the United States. The government respected the right of the Jewish community to continue its religious life, but the demographic decline, the emigration of lay and religious leaders, and the influence of the atheistic policy of the state had a growing impact on Jewish life. In 1973 Cuba severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, and the isolation of Havana Jews increased. The deterioration of communal life continued until the late 1980s, when 752 Jews (82% of the total in Cuba) were registered in the community's records for the distribution of products for Passover, sent annually by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Since 1990 the community in Havana experienced a great revival. The collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union forced the Castro government to look for new sources of hard currency, and Cuba was opened to tourists and foreign investors. The community in Havana receives moral and material support from Jewish organizations, especially from the *Joint Distribution Committe . Today there are three religious congregations functioning in Havana – the Patronato (with a Conservative synagogue), Adath Israel (Orthodox), and the Sephardi Center. In addition there are several other groups, including the B'nai B'rith, the Women's Organization, and ORT. For a detailed history of Havana Jews (including bibliography) see *Cuba .

[Margalit Bejarano (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.