Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish… even Havana, Cuba

By Lauren Sadowsky, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2012

¡Hola from Havana! We are now officially done with week three of our trip, and I have been having the time of my life. For a brief description of the program so far, we toured Habana Vieja during the first week, exploring and learning about Cuban historical sites with our amazing Cuban tour guide Girardo. Since then, for the past two weeks, we have been taking classes at Casa de las Américas in Vedado (the neighborhood where we are staying).

During the first week of our trip, our group of seventeen realized that seven of us are Jewish. While walking around in Vedado, we stumbled across two synagogues, a conservative synagogue named Beth Shalom, or in Spanish, El Patronato, and a Sephardic synagogue (which has a gym and is where several people purchased gym memberships). Coincidentally, I am able to see El Patronato from my bedroom window, as it is only a block away. As a result of this, I did a little research on the Jewish community in Havana, and Cuba in general. I found that there is a community of approximately 1,500 Jews in Cuba, and there are 3 synagogues in Havana. Curious and wanting to know more, a group of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, decided that we would attend Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services at El Patronato.

My friend MAC and I went a little early ahead of the rest of the group and ran into an American tour group from New York. We chatted for a while and found out that they were here with a trip from their home community synagogue, donating medical supplies to the pharmacy in the synagogue (serving both Jews and non-Jews in the Vedado area). The New York group was about to tour the pharmacy, and MAC and I were able to tag along for the tour.

The woman running the pharmacy spoke of the history of the pharmacy in the synagogue and the impact the drugs have had on the community. We found out that the drugs are donated mostly from Jews in Canada, the United States, and Argentina. She mentioned that gastro-intestinal medications are the most commonly prescribed and the most needed in the area, and thanked everyone for their contribution to help the Havana Jewish community. After the tour, MAC and I met up with the rest of the Northwestern group to attend services.

Participating in services in Havana was somewhat of a surreal experience for me. I have toured synagogues abroad before (in Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Toledo, Spain) but I had never attended services and interacted with the Jewish community of the area. Furthermore, the services were conducted in Hebrew and Spanish (obviously) but it was awesome because I was able to understand what was going on, as I can speak some Spanish (as opposed to Czech or some other language). I was absolutely amazed by the services and the Jewish community here. The community lacks a rabbi, and a group of 4 different teenagers led services for the congregation. I was extremely impressed. It was also fun to hear Spanish accents pronouncing Hebrew words, see the differences in the transliterations in the prayer book (i.e. they used a ‘j’ for a ‘ch’ sound… Pesach was Pesaj), and hear the different tunes for familiar prayers.

After services ended, we joined the community for Shabbat dinner in the basement. We met a guy named Jacob who is a student from Harvard here studying and conducting research on the Jewish community in Havana. He said that the Jewish community here is very complicated. On the one hand, the Jewish community is very small and it is hard to develop a strong presence in the community despite international efforts. However, on the other hand, many people in Cuba have been recently rediscovering their Jewish roots and have been trying to return to the community, since the limitations on practicing religion have been lifted since the 1990s in Cuba. However, this is somewhat questionable, as word has started to get around about the fact that the synagogue has access to lots of drugs from donations abroad, and that the synagogue provides a lot of services (ex. the free Friday night dinner) that people may just want to benefit from. Therefore, El Patronato has had to establish guidelines to be able to join the Jewish community. A Cuban has to prove that they have Jewish heritage via at least one Jewish grandparent (if I understood this correctly). Then, they must attend conversion classes and officially convert; there are currently 80 people enrolled in the class. However, many people from the Jewish community here have made Aliyah to Israel (which basically means that they have immigrated to Israel) and have left Cuba altogether. So in some sense, converting to Judaism may just be providing a relatively easy way to leave the country, as it is very hard to emigrate out of Cuba.

This leaves the Jewish community in a precarious position. Funneling people both into and out of the community does not bode well for the future of the community, as the numbers are not increasing overall. This whole situation is extremely fascinating to me and I am grateful that we ran into Jacob so he could help us better understand the dynamics of the community here.
I do not know how much I will be involved with the Jewish community while I am in Cuba. However, we have to conduct research projects as a part of our study abroad requirements, and I am looking into whether or not I will be able to incorporate the Jewish community and the pharmacy into my project. Regardless, attending services and learning about the Havana Jewish community was an experience that will be with me forever and has left an impact on my life. As a song I used to sing at Jewish summer camp goes: “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish; you’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew; so when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kinda ‘newish’; the odds are, don’t look far, ‘cause they’re Jewish too”, and I am amazed by how relevant this song is to my life at this moment.