The Jews of Cuba! – From Cantor Sarah Sager

There was a time when Cuba was accessible. It was colorful, multi-cultural, a kind of cross-roads for people, colonizing countries, wars, revolutions, and a series of governments that were, by turn, oppressive, corrupt, and authoritarian. And yet, despite the upheaval on the largest island of the West Indies, its people are warm and welcoming, its music rhythmic and alive, its countryside was described by Christopher Columbus, who discovered the island, as “the loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes”, and its cities have stories to tell.

Despite over 50 years of relative isolation imposed by the Castro regime, Cuba seems somehow familiar to us: the Che Guevara murals, the antiquated American cars, street musicians with bongos, and groups of men playing dominoes. There is something about the country that, even from a distance, seems dynamic, and pulsing with vitality and fascination.

The Jews of Cuba have lived on the island of Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace their ancestry to the Jews who fled during the Spanish Inquisition, though few of those still practice Judaism today. There was significant Jewish immigration to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century when Jews were being persecuted in Europe before the Second World War. Cuba was among the first countries in the Americas to take them in as refugees, and the Cuban Jewish community initially flourished. Numerous Yiddish newspapers were published and anti-Semitism during the war years seems not to have existed. It was later, during the communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, that 90% of Cuban Jewry fled the country. The revolution was not directed against Jews, but it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily made up of middle class business people. The economic shift from capitalism to communism made life exceedingly difficult and most of those who could leave, did so. Those who remained, were greatly concerned that they be labeled religious “believers.” Thus, most Jews abandoned their religious practices – but not the memory of their Jewish heritage.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise, the Cuban government recognized the need of all its citizens to have some kind of religious expression and support. The relaxation of restrictions has allowed the Jewish community to revive from its truly moribund state of a generation ago. It is still a poor and needy community that is surviving, literally, with the help of Jewish communities in the United States.

We are going on a Fairmount Temple Mission Trip to Cuba, Oct. 28-Nov. 5. As part of every person’s participation in our Mission to Cuba, each of us must bring approximately supplies including some medicines, hygienic products, clothing for adults, and reading and religious materials – in Spanish!!

We will worship with the Cuban Jewish community, we will share Shabbat dinner with them, and we will bring gifts to help sustain them. It will be a Mitzvah Mission, a life’s experience! Join us for this fabulous trip Vengan con nosotros para este viaje fabuloso.!!

Please contact me immediately if you’d like to register for the trip. Or post here at “If Not Now, When?” with questions or experiences you’ve had with travel to Cuba.

Cantor Sarah Sager,