| Cuban Jewish Community | Formation and Institutional development |
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Since 1959 |


arriba CUBAN JEWISH COMMUNITY

CUBA, archipelago of islands consisting of Cuba, Youth's Island, and 1,600 smaller islands; population (1989) 10.5 million; Jewish population (Since 1970) approximately 1,500. There were Jewish converts among the first European settlers on the island in 1492. One of them, Luis de Torres, was sent by Columbus on exploratory expeditions. Hernando Alonso, one of Cortes' soldiers and a colonial governor, was arrested by the Inquisition in 1528 for singing a psalm which mentioned "Israel in Egypt" while baptizing one of his children. Groups of Jews fleeing from Brazil during the Portuguese reconquest (17th century) settled in Cuba despite Inquisitional persecutions and promoted a flourishing trade with the Antilles and western islands. In the 18th century Jewish merchants extended this trade to Hamburg, Amsterdam, and New York. Several of them were severely persecuted by the Inquisition during the 17th and 18th centuries, and their possessions were confiscated, as in the case of Francisco Gomez de Leon of Havana, in 1613, Luis Rodriguez, and Antonio Mendez in c. 1627.

The contemporary Jewish community, however, does not represent a line of continuity with the Jews of the 18th century. Its formation began after independence from Spain was achieved (1898). Cuban constitutions from 1902, 1928, and particularly 1940 established the principle of freedom of religion and separation of church and state; thus, the legal basis for Jewish existence was attained. Although discriminatory legislation against aliens was not maintained as a principle and Jews were considered aliens dispositions promulgated under certain governments during the 1920s imposed extra duties on peddlers, hairdressers, and other occupations generally in the hands of Jews. In addition, a federal law enacted by the government of Grau San Martin (1933) legislated that 50% of workers employed by industrial or commercial employers must be Cuban natives. The dictatorial governments, however including that of Fulgencio Batista did not affect the Jewish community, mainly because of its apolitical character. The new revolutionary regime likewise did not discriminate against the Jews. Nevertheless, the position of Cuban Jewry changed radically in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1959).


arribaFORMATION AND INSTITUTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Prior to the 1959 Revolution


The origins of the Cuban Jewish community are linked to the War of Independence (1868) and the Spanish-American War (1898). Jews from Florida were among the active supporters of liberator Jose Marti and his people, and American Jews began to settle on the island as veteran soldiers or as businessmen at the end of the 19th century. In 1904 they founded the Union Hebrew Congregation (U.H.C.) with a reform synagogue, and in 1906 they acquired a cemetery. During the years prior to World War I, immigrants began to arrive from European Turkey and the Near East. The majority of them were in need of material assistance. Some members of the U.H.C., and particularly David Blis, to their aid. In 1914 the Sephardi Jews established a community organization called Union Hebrea Shevet Ahim; they had no contact with the bulk of American Jews on either the social or the organizational level. Immigration from East Europe began in 1920-21, but for most of these Jews, Cuba was only a transit point on the way to the United States. Most of the immigrants who arrived between 1920 and 1923 had left Cuba by 1925. But as a result of the stiffening of U.S. immigration laws in 1924, thousands of immigrants suddenly found themselves compelled to stay in Cuba, and even after 1924, thousands of Jews continued to arrive there.

The dire economic straits of the immigrants impelled Jewish welfare organizations in the United States to intervene on their behalf, and from the end of 1921 HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid society) maintained its representative in Havana. In 1922-23, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) added its support, and HIAS, in conjunction with the National Council of Jewish Women, established the Jewish Committee for Cuba. Later this body, whose center was in New York, was joined by the Emergency Refugee Committee. A local branch of the Jewish Committee was active in Havana until it amalgamated in 1926 with the Centro Israelita, which was established about a year before and which then constituted the main communal body of East European Jews in Havana.

During the 1920s the Centro Israelita centralized a diversified range of actvities: aside from welfare assistance to immigrants, a clinic, a library, an evening language school, a student center and a drama club. Despite the fact that its membership was not solely Zionist, the organization adopted the Zionist anthem and flag and the Star of David as its symbols. At the same time there were some other Ashkenazi Jewish organizations during the 1920s. The Kultur Fareyn, founded in 1926, united leftist Jews and developed a cultural program. Governed by the Communists, this organization staged anti-religious demonstrations and parties on the eve of the Day of Atonement; after one such incident in 1931, it was closed by the authorities and its members were tried for revolutionary activity. In 1934 the organization was revived as the Yidishe Gezelshaft far Kunst un Kultur, and for a while it joined forces with the Centro Israelita (1939), only to split away again and form the Folks Tsenter in opposition to it.
The religious Jews established the Adath Israel in 1925, from which the "Keneset Israel" organization split in 1929 only to rejoin it many years later as the Kehillah Ashkenazit Ahdut Israel. From 1929 the Zionists maintained the Asociacion Sionista and later the Union Sionista de Cuba, which was an important force in the 1920s and 1930s and which split into the various parties only in the 1940s. Other organizations included Idishe Froien Fareyn (Asociaci\n femenina Hebrea de Cuba, 1926), an anti-tuberculosis committee (1927), the ORT vocational school (1935), and a B'nai B'rith lodge (1943). The refugees from Europe, who managed to slip in despite severe immigration laws and whose overall number in the years 1933-44 was estimated at about 10,000-12,000 (about 50% from Germany and Austria and the remainder from Poland and other countries), left Cuba, for the most part, shortly after their arrival. According to an estimate, in 1949, only 15% of them remained there. After World War II Jews did not reach Cuba in large numbers.

Jewish communal relations with the Cuban society underwent noticeable changes. At first, the traditional Catholic image of the Jews prevailed. This fact prompted many immigrant Jews from Europe, even during the 1920s, to hide behind a camouflage of being Germans or Poles. In January 1919 the Cuban Senate approved a resolution in favor of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. A letter written by community leader Blis, through whose efforts the resolution was adopted, was read in the Senate (May 12, 2021) to honor the Jewish community. Nevertheless, against the background of the economic crisis, anti-Semitism increased in the 1920s and during the 1930s it spread rapidly with the radicalization in Cuban nationalism. A sustained anti-Jewish campaign was organized and financed by local and foreign Nazi elements in collusion with the German embassy. Government circles sanctioned anti-Semitic measures, internal repression, and the cessation of refugee immigration. In one case, the direct victims of these tendencies were the 907 Jewish refugees who, upon reaching Cuba on May 15, 1939, aboard the Saint-Louis, were barred from entry and obliged to return to Central Europe. At first, the Jewish community did not present a united front. Moderate factions, e.g., Americans and heads of the Centro Israelita, feared that large scale Jewish action might be interpreted as disrupting public affairs and might thus evoke police repression. Nevertheless, a certain amount of community cooperation was obtained during the 1930s through the following institutions: The Federaci\n Israelita de Cuba (1932); Comite Intersocial (1932-35), collaborating with the Comision Juridica (1933-34); among its functions was the liberation of Jews imprisoned by reason of their Jewishness alone; Jewish Committee of Cuba (1935-36), in which Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Americans collaborated. The Jewish Chamber of Commerce assumed the defense against anti-Semitism and represented the community on official occasions (between 1936-39). The Comite Central was reorganized in 1939, comprising all sectors of the community, and was recognized as its representative organ by the Cuban authorities. It joined forces with anti-Fascist bodies and supported the Allies in World War II. The anti-Semitic climate was finally neutralized from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The attempts on the part of the Ashkenazim to centralize community organization culminated in 1949 with the foundation of the Patronado de la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea and the construction of a large community center in the wealthy Vedado area. However, Cuban Jewry remained essentially split into three sectors-Americans, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim-each with its own cemetery and other services.



arribaDEMOGRAPHY AND ECONOMY

In 1925 the Jewish population of Cuba was estimated at about 8,000: 2,700 Sephardim, 100 Americans, 5,200 Ashkenazim. A census conducted in the Ashkenazi community in 1952 counted about 7,200 persons, and the total Jewish number was estimated the same year at 12,000. About 75% were concentrated in the capital, Havana, and its environs, and the rest were in about 90 settlements in the provinces of Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, Matanzas, Camaguey, and Oriente, mainly in their capital cities.

The first Jews to settle in modern Cuba, the Americans, engaged mostly in export and import, as well as in sugar and tobacco farming. The vast majority were well-to-do. The Sephardim, most of whom arrived in Cuba penniless, developed peddling and small business. In as much as their arrival coincided with a prosperous period in the economy, they did not encounter any difficulties.

The East European immigrants, on the other hand, came during a severe economic slump. Their absorption into a country with tropical climate, bereft of industry, and inundated with cheap labor from neighboring Haiti, proved very difficult. Many turned to peddling and in 1925 about 500 Jewish peddlers were noted in Havana and approximately another 300 in the cities of the interior. Professionals in the fields of furniture, clothing, and especially shoes, turned to the respective factories which were owned partly by Jews. Many others worked as unskilled manual laborers. In 1925-29 the number of Jewish laborers in Havana was estimated at 1,000. They joined the existing professional unions, particularly in the shoe and furniture fields, and some became union leaders and organized strikes, especially in plants owned by Jews. Unions were also established by Jewish peddlers and barbers. In the 1920s, agricultural settlement was attempted in Finca Paso Real Calabrazo by the Jewish Committee, but soon failed. During World War II, Jewish refugees from Antwerp introduced the diamond-polishing industry and within one year (1942-43) established 24 plants that employed about 1,000 workers. The economic situation of the Jews progressively improved, and by the end of the 1950s the Jewish working class had almost completely disappeared.



arribaEDUCATION

Each sector of the community aspired to form its own educational organization. The first school was established under the auspices of the Sephardi congregation Shevet Ahim. Talmud Torah Theodor Herzl, founded on Jan. 21, 1924, served children from the three communities; it was subsidized by the U.H.C. and the Jewish Committee for Cuba, and from 1927 was administered by the Centro Israelita. From 1939 its curriculum was coordinated with the secular state programs as the Colegio Autonomo del Centro Israelita. The Colegio Hebreo Sefardita Theodor Herzl offered primary education according to the official curriculum and Jewish religious studies; Colegio Yabne (founded 1935) was of Zionist orientation; the Instituto Hebreo Tahkemoni a primary school, followed an official and religious program as part of the Ashkenazi community; Shalom Aleichem Shule (founded 1940) was of leftist orientation; the Sunday School of the Temple Beth Israel imparted Jewish religious education in the English language. A significant educational function was fulfilled by the many youth groups affiliated with the adult community institutions, the Zionist pioneer movements, the Club juvenil de la Union Sionista, the organization of Jewish students, and Macabi.


arribaCULTURE

The number of writers and poets Cuban Jewry has produced is small. There is, however, a strong inclination toward the theater, literary evenings, and "literary trials." In 1927 the first Jewish book was published in Cuba the poetry of N. D. Korman, Oyf Indzler Erd and later, during the 1920s and 1930s, poetry and prose works by Eliezer Aronowski, I. A. Pines, Pinchas Berniker and A. I. Dubelman were published. Journalism also developed slowly from the first publication in 1925 of the short-lived Dos Fray Vort. Among the more important organs were the pro-Zionist Oyfgang (1927-30), in Yiddish, subsidized by the Centro Israelita and the newspaper with the widest circulation, the Havaner Leben-Vida Habanera (1932-1963), also pro-Zionist and dedicated to general and Jewish news; others were Dos Idishe Vort (1933-35); Folkstsenter (1943), a Communist publication; Israelis, in Spanish, dealing with general Jewish problems.


arriba POLITICS

Cuba-Israel Relations

Cuba was the only Latin American country which voted against the Partition Resolution, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947. Subsequently, relations with the Batista Government improved and Cuba supported the call for direct negotiations at the UN in 1952. Following Cuban revolution in 1959, there was a period of fairly intense activity, which, inter alia, found expression in a series of trade agreements signed in 1959, 1960, and 1962. Subsequently, there was a marked cooling off, originating from the growing identity of outlook on foreign policy between the Cuban government and that of the Soviet Union. Cuba alienated from its neighbors in the Western hemisphere, and suspended from participation in the Organization of American States came to seek support, increasingly, among the countries of the Third World, among which Egypt and Algeria played a prominent role. With the establishment in Havana of the Secretaria of the Tri-Continental Organization, which adopted the cause of the anti-Israel Palestinian Liberation Movement, Havana became increasingly active in spreading its doctrine. The press and radio of Cuba reflected this tendency, particularly after the Six-Day War (1967), in one-sided editorial policy and selection of information. However, in spite of the heavy pressure presumably brought to bear upon it, the Cuban Government refused to break diplomatic relations with Israel, which continue at a legation level without interruption. The Cuban Government maintained its policy of recognizing Israel, and on various occasions manifested its support for Arab-Israel negotiations as a preferable means of resolving the Middle East conflict. A number of Israel agricultural experts have been active in Cuba on behalf of the Israel-Cuba Friendship League. At the United Nations, the Cuban government was consistent in supporting the Arab viewpoint against Israel from the mid-1960s.


arribaSINCE 1959

The revolution of 1959, headed by Fidel Castro, was sympathetically received by many members of the Jewish community, especially the leftists and the students. Indeed, the revolution brought about, for the first time in the history of Cuban Jewry, the appointment of a Jew as minister (the engineer Enrique Oltuski Osachki), and neither during the revolution nor after its success were any anti-Semitic attitudes adopted. But, by effecting profound changes in the social and economic structure of the country, affecting the economy of the majority of Cuban Jews.

Thousands of Jews decided to emigrate, and their exit was in many cases facilitated by the fact that the authorities considered them "repatriates" returning to Israel, whereas the majority found refuge in the United States.

Out of a Jewish population of about 10,000-12,000 before the revolution, in 1965 there were about 2,500 Jews and in 1970 only about 1,500, approximately, 1,000 in the capital and the rest in the cities of the interior (particularly Santiago de Cuba and the province of Oriente). An estimate from the end of 1963, which still counted about 3,000 Jews in Cuba, also indicated that only about 30% of the breadwinners among them work and earn a livelihood while 70% support themselves by reparations for nationalized property paid in installments or by selling their property. This situation did not change essentially in subsequent years, and the number of young people within the Jewish population is very small. The Jewish institutions, however, did not disappear. During the High Holidays of 1966, five synagogues were still functioning in Cuba; two old synagogues of the Sephardi Shevet Ahim and Adath Israel in the old city, and the beautiful synagogue of the Ashkenazim (in the Patronato Building), as well as that of the Sephardim in the new city and the Reform temple Beth Israel, which conducts prayers in English. Despite the new regime, Cuban authorities permit the existence of a kosher kitchen (in the Patronato Building), as well as the acquisition of unleavened bread and special products for the Jewish holidays. The Zionist movement continues to exist, and its members meet at specified times and carry on various cultural and educational activities, maintaining contact with the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. The Albert Einstein school also functions and offers courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies as well as Jewish history. In 1970, there were about 400 Cuban Jews in Israel, most of them on kibbutzim.

THE 70s

The Jewish community of Cuba dwindled still further and was estimated at only some 1,200 souls, the majority of them elderly. The knowledge that religious observance in Cuba acts as a bar against prospective appointments to good positions and promotion in a career discourages the practice of religion.

THE MID 90s

Although the new regime respected its Jewish citizens and their institutions, the great majority of Jews emigrated, mostly to United States. Nearly all the remaining 1,000 Jews live in Havana. Despite the drop in numbers, one Sephardi and two Ashkenazi synagogues continue to function. The Jewish school closed in 1975 but the community maintains a Sunday school. The synagogue in Santiago de Cuba was rededicated in 1995 to serve the 80 Jews in that city.

 

   
 

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