Cool Shuls

Inside Cuba’s Resilient Jewish Community

In Havana, the Sephardic Hebrew Center proudly displays the USCJ emblem, painted on the temple’s window. Credit: Alan Gitterman/Diana Vigil

Diana Vigil, USCJ Administrative Assistant for the Pacific Southwest Region, traveled this July to Havana, Cuba, where she visited the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a USCJ kehilla. Credit: Alan Gitterman

When Temple Aliyah’s own Diana Vigil traveled to Cuba this summer, she carried two duffel bags full of toiletries desperately needed by Havana’s impoverished yet resilient Jewish community. The USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) administrative assistant for the Pacific Southwest Region and her husband—KABC news writer and producer Alan Gitterman—would spend 10 humid days walking the city’s historic Jewish corridors and visiting its oldest synagogue.

Unlike the Jews who travel to Cuba each year on congregation-sponsored humanitarian trips, Diana and Alan traveled alone. Free from government restrictions, the couple found kehilla (Jewish community) in the leaders of the Sephardic Hebrew Center and the Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue. Both leaders, whose temples lie within a five-block radius, were “very energetic to show us how the community has survived through the years,” says Diana. The Cuban Revolution from 1953–1959 diminished the country’s Jewish population from 15,000 to 1,200—many had fled to the United States fearing Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

Diana, herself a former journalist, calls the country “frozen in time.” On Friday mornings, people line up at the only Kosher butcher shop in Havana, and they make their own challah from scratch. In Cuba, it’s difficult to be Kosher without being vegetarian or vegan. When the couple was invited to Shabbat dinner at Beth Shalom, they shared a simple meal of salad, beans and rice and tuna salad.

At Beth Shalom, Diana honored her mother’s yahrzeit at an intimate, Spanish-language service. Credit: Alan Gitterman/Diana Vigil

At Beth Shalom, Diana honored her mother’s yahrzeit (death anniversary) at an intimate, Spanish-language service, where she felt at home following the same Hebrew prayers spoken at her temple back in the United States. No rabbis live in Havana. Instead, they visit once every three months from Brazil and Argentina. Services are led by younger laypeople—most in their twenties—as part of the Ashkenazic congregation’s program to carry the continuity of being Jewish into the new generation. In the same spirit, the synagogue built a youth lounge equipped with internet access.

(L to R) Alongside her husband, Renee, Sephardic Hebrew Center Executive Board Member Lissette Fuentes Albalah gives Diana Vigil a tour of Havana’s historic Hotel Raquel. Credit: Alan Gitterman

At the Sephardic Hebrew Center, the couple met kehilla president Lissette Fuentes Albalah, who showed them Chevet Ahim Synagogue, Cuba’s oldest Jewish temple. Built in 1914, the synagogue no longer holds services but still belongs to the Jewish community. Lissette also took them to Hotel Raquel, whose beauty Diana recalls in the mosaic stained-glass windows and charcoal-colored Star of David chandelier. A landmark for the island’s Jewish community, the hotel is “the closest to Jerusalem” many Cubans get, says Diana.

In Havana, the Sephardic Hebrew Center proudly displays the USCJ emblem, which is painted on the temple’s window. As Cuban Jews gaze into the post-Castro era, they see a future in which religion is not as forbidden as it once was. Since the U.S. and Cuba renewed relations in 2014, an increasing number of kehillot (Jewish community inside and outside the walls of a synagogue) rely on remittances from their families in America. Under the new administration, says Diana, “they’re extremely concerned with any embargoes that may be happening, because they’ve been isolated, and they’re afraid of losing any new connections they have with the U.S.” As Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean earlier this month, Albalah says, many Havanans “lost all they had.” The Jewish community, she says, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), have banded together to provide food and relief to those in need. Today, Cuba remains a place where it is difficult to find internet access, where kehillot welcome their American brothers and sisters and where the pride of being Jewish runs as deep as the diaspora. To learn more, visit this website.

Alan Gitterman, KABC news writer and producer, explores the sanctuary inside Havana’s Sephardic Hebrew Center. Credit: Diana Vigil

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