The synagogue looked fairly generic from the exterior, no different from any others I had visited in the United States. If anything, it was outstanding only for appearing somewhat outdated, as if it hadn’t been updated in four or five decades.
A large gray Star of David lined in gold hung on the front and the doors were emblazoned in gold menorahs as well as lions, camels, and other biblical animals.
It wasn’t until you stepped inside and saw a picture of Fidel Castro in his signature army fatigues and cap framed among the items of Judaica that you realized you weren’t in Long Island or Los Angeles.
This is the Patronato Synagogue, the largest of the three synagogues that remain in Havana. I visited as part of a mission trip with the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) as part of a mission trip to the fledgling but still-standing Jewish community in Cuba.
Today, there are fewer than 1,500 Jews in Cuba, 85 percent of whom live in the capital. Cuba once had a thriving Jewish community. At its peak, there were 15,000 Jews, and Havana boasted five synagogues and six or seven Jewish day schools, says Adela Dworin, the Patronato’s president. “You know the expression, one Jew, two synagogues,” she says with a laugh.
Dworin grew up in Cuba, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Pinsk. She is petite and has a stylish bob. I’d peg her in her 70s or 80s, and she wears big round eyeglasses that encompass her face much like the Jackie O-style sunglasses my grandma opts for in the summer. Dworin has a great sense of humor and throws around Yiddish words—also like my grandma.
The small but significant similarities between Havana-raised Dworin and my Brooklyn-raised grandma maybe aren’t all that surprising, since both came from Eastern European Jewish families.
Dworin’s parents came during the big wave of Jewish immigration to Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s when it was very difficult to come to the U.S., which was experiencing one of its strongest anti-Semitic and anti-Immigration periods.
Some of the Jews fleeing the growing anti-Semitism and Nazism in Europe were lucky enough to find refuge in Cuba, and they grew the peddling businesses they had in Europe into successful enterprises.
“Small schmatta shops became bigger schmatta shops,” says Dworin. (‘Schmatta’ is a Yiddish word for clothes or rags; it was eerie and delightful to hear the word I’ve grown up hearing with a Spanish accent layered over the Yiddish.)
Dworin is a holdover, one of the small minority of Jews who did not leave after the revolution and Castro’s rise to power. Many Jews were actually initially supportive of the revolt against Fulgencio Batista and were founding members of the Communist party in Cuba. After Castro took power, though, 90 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled to the U.S. and other countries.
The Jewish community not only suffered a communal exodus, but it has had to cope with highly limited access to resources, just as all Cubans do.
Certain Jewish traditions have just been too hard to maintain under Castro rule. Dworin says it is very hard to be shomer shabbat, meaning to keep the Sabbath. Meat is scarce as is, and getting kosher meat is almost entirely impossible.
Dworin says she has a community member who acts a shochet, someone specifically trained in slaughtering animals in a kosher way, but that is on an individual level.
Global Jewish identity-building events, like Birthright trips to Israel and the Maccabi sports games, are often hard to impossible for Cuban Jews to participate in due to financial or travel logistics.
Because the population of Jews in Cuba is so small, Dworin estimates that 95 percent intermarry. For these reasons, the future of the Jewish community in Cuba seems tenuous at best.
At the same time, the Jewish Cuban appears to have something that many Jews around the world lack: safety.
The Cuban Jewish community is unequivocal in stressing they experience no forms of anti-Semitism from the government or their neighbors. “We are not second-class citizens. No one will throw eggs at us – unless it’s a ration,” says Dworin. She laughs lightheartedly while the rest of us, the vast majority of whom have never known life under rations, chuckle uncomfortably along.
In addition to the Patronato Synagogue, we also visit the Sephardic Hebrew Center, one of the two other houses of worship in Havana. There, we receive a tour from an older congregant, Samuel, who stresses that the Jewish community was not threatened by the government, even before Castro eased up on religious restrictions.
“They never shut down synagogues. I went every Shabbat,” he tell us. Still, the important caveat is that Jews who wanted to hold higher political status could not appear actively religious.
“I never suffer any kind of persecution,” says Dworin. “My parents came from Poland. I decided to stay, and I made a good choice. Life here is much safer than in other Latin-American countries.”
Or, for that matter, perhaps in Europe, as well. The Paris attacks hang over us mentally as a disturbing comparison point against the life of Cuban Jews.
Since returning to the U.S., there’s been another attack on Jews abroad: Israeli tourists were burned and beaten at a hostel in Argentina in a targeted anti-Semitic attack. Feeling secure in one’s homeland is a premium for any person, but especially a Jew, and every American on our trip realizes that.
I must admit that I felt safer in Cuba as a Jew than I ever have abroad (except for in Israel). The non-Jewish Cubans treat us no differently at all when they find out our religion.
While riding in a wildly uncomfortable cab, our driver spoke about how Castro had allowed churches to reopen in 1998 and asked if we were Catholic. One of the passengers said no and added that we were actually Jewish. I froze. I had grown up being taught not to talk about my religion pretty much anywhere outside of New York, and especially not abroad. The cab driver just nodded and smiled and proudly asked if we knew Havana had synagogues and a Holocaust memorial (we did).
In another instance, when we had written down the wrong address to one of the synagogues, a cab driver outside the Museo de La Revolución (The Museum of the Revolution), immediately knew where to go and helped us find our way there. These moments of kindness and security cannot, unfortunately, be taken for granted.
But the sense of security is not black-and white. Every adult on the trip is well aware of Alan Gross, the Jewish-American who was wrongly detained in a Cuban prison for five years when he was suspected of being a spy.
Cuba’s commitment to “la revolución” is ever-present and irksome. You drive along the streets and giant billboards of little girls in, of all things, ballet outfits are emblazoned with the big, bold “La Revolución Es Invencible” (The Revolution Is Invincible).
Yet, despite the fact that the Castro regime long-opposed religion, the Jewish community has not butted heads with the government. “I asked Fidel, ‘Why haven’t you come to our synagogue?’ He said, ‘You’ve never invited me,’” Dworin says with another laugh. A photo of his visit hangs in the Patronato, and his brother and current leader, Raúl Castro, has also paid a visit.
His photo hanging in a synagogue is a surprising image to American Jews, though perhaps not as startling as the Cuban and Israeli flags hanging side-by-side in the Sephardic center.
Israel and Cuba have one of the tenser diplomatic relations, second perhaps only to the U.S. and Cuba’s. Israel has been the only other country to consistently vote with the U.S. when its embargo on Cuba is placed before the UN General Assembly.
“The official Cuban policy is anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian,” says Samuel. “It is a big problem, [but] you have to look at it through the lens of the UN vote.”
Cuba’s relationship with Israel is certainly disconcerting to some Cuban Jews, but the hardships of day-to-day life are more prescient.
As with the rest of Cuba, the Jewish community is subjected to the shortages and poverty that plague the country – and it is a disturbing trade-off for the religious security.
The synagogues in Havana serve as much, if not more of, a social purpose as a religious one. Many of the Cuban Jews I speak with are only partially Jewish and some are initial drawn to the community for the social support it provides, such as Shabbat dinners with meat.
One of the most important functions of Patronato is running a pharmacy. We are told beforehand there are shortages of Bengay, nasal spray, toothbrushes, and many other basic toiletries.
When we hold a small carnival with arts and crafts for the young children at the synagogue, I see six year olds ask if they can take bottles of glues and eagerly, longingly stare at markers.
It is a sharp reminder that amidst the pastel-colored and crumbling facades of the buildings lining old Havana and the beautiful, still-proudly standing synagogues, the basics of everyday life are near impossible to come by. Living under hardship: the great equalizer in Cuba.