Cuban Jews persevere Faith: There are only 1,500 Jews left in Cuba. They don't have a rabbi, but their belief is resilient.

January 20, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- Barely noticeable amid the Roman Catholic edifices that Pope John Paul II will visit here this week, the remnant of a once-thriving Jewish community is struggling to maintain the faith and traditions of its ancestors.

There isn't a single rabbi in the entire country, and food rationing and shortages make it difficult to keep Jewish dietary laws. But the 1,500 Jews remaining from a pre-revolutionary community of 16,000 hold steadfast.

The pope will meet with the leaders of the Jewish community and other denominations in a Papal Nunciature on Sunday morning, before celebrating his final Mass in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion.

From the Jews he will hear a story of determination.

"The plan is to keep going and not to die," says Abraham Berezniak, president of Synagogue Adath Israel, a red brick building dating from the 1950s amid the colonial facades in a section of Old Havana that used to be the Jewish quarter.

"I think if the community didn't die in the most difficult years," he says, "it will continue to survive."

The majority of Cuba's Jewish community is descended from Ashkenazic Jews who escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe shortly after World War I, and Sephardic Jews, mostly from Turkey, who fled discrimination and mandatory military service in their homelands.

Cuba was a way station en route to the United States. Most Jews who eventually settled in Cuba didn't arrive with any intention of staying here. But strict immigration limitations in the early 1920s closed the door to the United States, forcing many to stay in Cuba.

"They thought maybe next year they could go and it could open up, but it never did," Berezniak says.

"My grandparents went to New York," said Eugenia Farin Levy, a Cuban Jew of Turkish ancestry. "But they couldn't get residency, so they came to Cuba. Cuba was welcoming and made it easy to immigrate."

Most Jews settled in Havana and opened factories that manufactured clothes and shoes, while others sold clothing in retail shops. "Almost the entire clothing industry was run by Jews," Berezniak says proudly.

But after the Cuban revolution triumphed in 1959, Fidel Castro nationalized private businesses and the Jewish merchants lost their livelihood. Those with means fled the country, most to the United States, but others to Israel, Mexico and Venezuela.

"Those who did not have the courage to leave and start a new life stayed," said Dr. Jose Miller, president of the Hebrew Community of Cuba.

"My mother and father had a clothes store," said Berezniak, a 51-year-old man with a soft, round face and an almost serene disposition. "When the government nationalized it, they kept working at the store. They didn't want to leave."

The community's religious leadership also left. "There are no rabbis in Cuba, because the rabbis left as well at the beginning of the revolution," Berezniak said.

Now, the community can't afford to pay a full-time rabbi. "The rabbis work and you have to support them," said Diego Edelbaum, a 25-year-old Argentine sent by the Joint Distribution Committee to assist Cuba's Jewish community. "Here, the synagogues are not big enough" to support a rabbi.

"But there is Jewish life here because there are young people who know how to do the service," said Edelbaum, who works out of the United Hebrew Congregation, Havana's largest synagogue, where a Sunday school was recently reopened after a hiatus of several years. "Here it is not necessary to have a rabbi to have a synagogue."

Jewish leaders in Cuba said they have experienced little or no religious discrimination, either before or after the revolution. Jewish schools were the only parochial schools allowed to operate after the revolution, and the government permits the community to have a kosher butcher, a function also filled by Berezniak.

What was left in Cuba was a Jewish community that was small, poor and aging. There are three synagogues in Havana and one in Santiago de Cuba, a city 550 miles to the east.

Havana's Hebrew school, Albert Einstein School, closed in 1975 because it had too few students.

In Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city after Havana, a group of Sephardic Jews from Turkey founded Temple Shevet Ahim. The Sephardic Jews, mostly poorer than their brethren in Havana, had moved east and started businesses that catered to workers in the sugar cane fields and factories.

The community thrived for dec- ades, but by 1979, so many people had either left or died that Shevet Ahim could no longer assemble a minyan, the quorum of 10 men necessary for prayer. The synagogue shut its doors and officially dissolved.

It remained closed for 16 years. But two years ago, there was enough new blood to reacquire the synagogue, a simple light green masonry building almost indistinguishable from the other colonial houses on the block in the old part of the city, except for the Star of David on its wooden doors.

The community was renamed Sinogoga Hatikva, for the Hebrew word for hope, during a joyous re-opening celebration.

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