Global Jewish Reflections | In Cuba, Building a Resilient Jewish Community Through Hope, Faith, and Hard Work

Since 1992, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler has been intimately involved with the renaissance and revival of the Cuban Jewish community. This is the story of three decades of JDC's work on the island.

By Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler - Chief Rabbi of Cuba | February 5, 2021

Rabbi Szteinhendler performs a marriage ceremony at the Patronato synagogue in Havana in December 2018.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Sometimes, when I look back at the progress made by the Jewish community of Cuba in the last 30 years, it feels like a miracle. Then again, there’s nothing miraculous about it — the remarkable revival of this historic Jewish community is thanks to the investment of organizations like JDC and tremendous hope, faith, and hard work on the part of Cuban Jews.

I feel privileged to play a small role in that story.

At the end of 1991, JDC responded to an urgent request by the then-president of Cuba’s Jewish community, Dr. José Miller, of blessed memory.

Cuban Jews were ready to rejoin the fold, Miller said, prompting Alberto Senderey — then JDC’s regional director for Europe and Latin America — to visit the island. After his visit, it wasn’t long before JDC’s deputy regional director for Latin America, Bernardo Selzer, reached out to me about traveling there myself.

Representatives of the Cuban Religious Coalition visit Kabbalat Shabbat services at Havana’s Patronato synagogue to show solidarity and offer condolences following the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018.

When I first went to Cuba, in January of 1992, it was intense, as the island was in the worst moment of that “special” period. The situation was terrible, and Jewish life had been hard-hit, with very rundown buildings and none of the four synagogues operating.

As I made visits to analyze the conditions things were in, two things really clicked for me. The first was the insistence of the second and third generation of Jews born under the Castro regime who said, “Please don’t forget about us. If you came here to say we’re not actually Jews, let us tell you, ‘We want to get back to our roots, and we want you to help us.’” That really moved me. The second was when I went to the Ashkenazi Adath Israel synagogue, which was really in shambles, and there was a poster that read “Am Yisrael Chai in Cuba,” which translates to “The Jewish people lives in Cuba.” I felt like that was the order of the day — we had to help.

When I came back and presented a report, JDC decided to undertake a project to restore Jewish life and religious practice. It was necessary to start with the ABCs, and we decided to call it the “regularization program,” since that made the Cuban Jews feel they weren’t forgotten or relegated or judged. Instead, they were just in a very particular situation, and now we had returned out of respect for their spirit of Jewish resilience and to reconnect them with their Jewish identity.

It wasn’t just a dream. Everyone was committed to the future of Cuban Jewry.

The regularization programs, which included introductory classes on Jewish faith and values, holidays, and traditions, lasted a year on average. When we completed the initial round in 1992, Cuba had its first wedding ceremonies with a chuppah (wedding canopy), the first brit milah (circumcision), and the first bar mitzvahs since the 1970s. That was truly moving for local Jewish life because a light came on — they realized that they could do this, and it wasn’t just a dream. Everyone was committed to the future of Cuban Jewry.

Rabbi Szteinhendler performs a marriage ceremony at the Patronato synagogue in Havana in December 2018.

The classes, and the opportunity for Cuba’s Jews to reconnect with and reclaim their Jewish heritage, came at a very special time in the country, where there would be blackouts with no notice that lasted seven or eight hours. Though it was dark and raining, everyone stayed seated — they were that committed to the classes continuing. For me, coming from a world where people complain, criticize, make demands, and then ultimately don’t participate, it was incredible to see this passion and drive to recover Judaism.

Parashat Yitro describes a transcendent moment in the history of our people. The roots the children of Israel had preserved through time, the change in reality, the visualization of a new opportunity … all of this converges in an act that marks a turning point toward the future. Here, revelation generates a clamorous response: “Naaseh Venishmah.” We will do, and we will hear. It’s an answer that reverberates through the ages with passion, commitment, belonging, and the desire to leave the desert and head toward the promised land.

In the same way, we could respectfully describe the meeting in 1992 between JDC and the Jewish Community of Cuba. Their changing reality, their longing and desire to reconnect with their roots, their passion and commitment to rebuild community life, and their need for belonging and learning transformed from that first meeting in January 1992 into a reverberating Naaseh Venishmah on behalf of all Cuban Jews. Today, we are witnessing vibrant and thriving community life on the island as a result of that meeting and that “covenant” that consecrated an essential mutual commitment supported daily by JDC: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.” We, all of Israel, are responsible for each other.

Cuban Jews celebrate Tu Bishvat together in January 2020.

During the pandemic, everything has been turned upside down, no two ways about it. At the beginning, everyone was frozen — unsure what to do, where to go, or how to preserve Jewish community connection given the unique context of the island. Soon, we sat down with Jewish leaders in Havana and the provinces, and realized that the only resource available was to move community life online.

We got right to it and built a virtual model for religious services — an innovation we never could have pulled off without JDC’s support. Every time we finish a service, the messages start coming in: “I am proud to belong to this community.” We have people join in from Israel, despite the time difference, and others from the U.S. and different locations throughout the world.

Everyone who participates does so with passion and gratitude for this special and resilient community. Now I believe that, despite the pandemic, when we are able to resume our “new reality,” we will not find a community in tatters like we found in 1992. Instead, we will find a community anxious to be physically together in one place but with a profound awareness of their identity, engagement, and sense of belonging to the global Jewish family.

Shmuel Szteinhendler — a rabbi in Santiago, Chile — is considered the current Chief Rabbi of Cuba as well as the regional director for Masorti Olami in Latin America. Rabbi Szteinhendler was born in Argentina and trained as a Conservative rabbi in Buenos Aires.

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