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The Jewish Community of Cuba

Cuba

Archipelago of islands consisting of Cuba, Pinos, and 1,600 smaller islands.

There were Jewish converts among the first European settlers on the island in 1492. 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 during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Inquisition.

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. The dictatorial governments - including that of Fulgencio Batista - did not affect the Jewish community, mainly because of its apolitical character.

Fidel Castro's revolutionary regime likewise did not discriminate against the Jews. Nevertheless, the position of Cuban Jewry changed radically in the wake of the Castro revolution (1959).

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 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. In 1914 the Sephardi Jews established a community organization called Union Hebrea Shevet Achim.

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 Centro Israelita constituted was the main communal body of east European Jews in Havana. During the 1920s the Centro Israelita centralized diversified activities, ranging from welfare assistance to immigrants, a clinic, a library, and an evening language school, to 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 other Ashkenazi organizations during the 1920's, including the Communist-governed Kultur Fareyn, founded in 1926. The religious Jews established the "Adas Isroel" in 1925. From 1929 the Zionists maintained the Asociacion Sionista and alter the Union Sionista de Cuba, which was an important force in the 1920's and 1930's.

The refugees from Europe, who managed to slip in despite severe immigrations 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.

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. 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.

The American settlers in modern Cuba engaged mostly in import and export, 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. 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, and many also turned to peddling. During World War II, Jewish refugees from Antwerp introduced the diamond-polishing industry and within one year established 24 plants that employed about 1,000 workers. The economic situation of the Jews steadily improved, and by the end of the 1950s the Jewish working class had almost completely disappeared.

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. The revolution practically destroyed, however, the economic stability of the majority of Cuban Jews. Thousands of Jews decided to emigrate, and the majority found refuge in the United States (many in Miami). 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. Jewish institutions, however, did not disappear, and during the high holidays of 1966 five synagogues were still functioning in Cuba.

Despite the regime of austerity, Cuban authorities permit the existence of a kosher kitchen, 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. The Albert Einstein school also functions and offers courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies as well as Jewish history.

Cuba's population in 1967 was 7,937,200; Jewish population - approximately 1,500. In 1970 there 400 Cuban Jews in Israel, most of them on Kibbutzim. Between the years 1948 - 1997 661 Cuban Jews have emigrated to Israel.

In 1997 there were 800 Jews living in Cuba. The Jewish communal organization in Havana was active and four synagogues functioned in the country.

During the year 1999 400 Jews emigrated from Cuba to Israel.
Place Type:
Country
ID Number:
240643
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

Related items:
The synagogue in Havana, Cuba, 1982
After the revolution the building housed government offices. Only two rooms were left to the Jewish community, which held prayer meetings there
Photo: Bentley Kassal, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Bentley Kassal, USA)
INTERIOR OF THE ASHKENAZI ORTHODOX
SYNAGOGUE ON 52 PICOTA STREET,
HAVANA, CUBA, C.1980
PHOTO: DR. THEODORE COHEN, USA.
(BETH HATEFUTSOTH PHOTO ARCHIVE,
COURTESY OF DR. THEODORE COHEN, USA)
Photos from the life of the Jewish Community
in Havana, Cuba, 1940's
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Eliyahu Cohen,USA)
Eitan, Rafael (Rafi) (1926- ), Israeli politician and intelligence officer, born in 1926 in Kibbutz Ein Harod, Israel. His parents were Zionists from Russia who had come to Palestine in 1923. His father was a farmer and a poet while his mother was a social activist. Eitan went to a junior public school in Ramat Hasharon. At age 12, partly to give expression to his Zionist feeling and partly to help defend his home from Arab insurgents, Eitan joined the Hagana. In 1944, after he completed high school, he joined the elite Palmach participating in a number of clandestine operations which were designed to help the illegal immigration of European Jews to Palestine. He took part in the operation to blow up the British radar station on Mount Carmel near Haifa. To reach it, Eitan had to crawl underground through sewers, thus earning the name 'Rafi the Smelly', which would in later years differentiate him from Rafael Eitan (“Raful”) who became Chief of Staff of the IDF.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Eitan served in Army intelligence, advancing to senior positions in the General Security Service (Shin Bet). Among his successes, Eitan discovered in 1958 that Lt. Col. Israel Beer, aide to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, was a Soviet spy. He then became coordinator between the Shin Bet and the Mossad and in this capacity he was responsible for organizing the capture and abduction from the Argentine to Israel of the Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Between 1964 and 1966 Eitan headed a two-year operation in which armaments sold and delivered by the Germans to the Egyptian government 'disappeared'. He was involved in the planning and implementation of the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Eitan was also said to be the head of the Israeli vengeance squad that tracked down and killed the Palestine Liberation Organization's Black September terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In 1972 Eitan retired from the intelligence organizations but he was called back to government when in 1978 prime minister Menachem Begin appointed him advisor on terrorism. Eitan was named head of the Defense Ministry's Bureau for Scientific Relations which in 1984 made contact with Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen, who worked on anti-terrorist activities at the US Naval Investigative Services. Pollard had contacted the Israeli government with top secret information on the terrorist activities of Israel's enemies. Eitan resigned his position when Jonathan Pollard was arrested in the US in 1985. Eitan became head of the state-owned Israel Chemicals Corporation, until 1993 when he retired.

From 1992, Eitan became involved in successful business ventures in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other central American countries.

In the 2006 Knesset elections Eitan headed the Gil Party which represented old-age pensioners. The party won seven seats, it entered the government and he became minister for Pensioners Affairs. In the 2009 elections support for the party declined radically and Eitan lost his Knesset seat.

Fabio Grobart (born Abraham Grobart, also known as Antonio Blanco and Abraham Simjovitch) (1905-1994), revolutionary and politician who played an important role in the Cuban revolution of 1959, born in Bialystok, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). Already in 1922 he joined the Polish Communist Youth League. Since the Communists were not permitted to activate freely in Poland, Grobart immigrated to Cuba in 1924 fleeing imprisonment. In Cuba he owned a sewing workshop in Havana for some time. On instructions from the Comintern, along with a group of comrades, Grobart participated in the creation of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1925. He became the main ideologist of the party and a mentor of Fidel Castro, whom in 1948 he personally involved in revolutionary activities. For his political activities he was arrested and expelled from Cuba in 1932. He returned in 1937.

Grobart was particularly active in organizing the trade unions. He represented Cuba in the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Grobart played a leading role in the Cuban revolution of 1959.  After the 1959 revolution, Grobart was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1965 to 1991 and served as a member of the National Assembly of Cuba. Considered as one of the main ideologues of the Communist regime in Cuba, Grobart was the editor of the influential Cuba Socialista magazine and a historian of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Jose (Josie) Miller (1925-2006), leader of the Jewish community of Cuba, born in Yaguajay, Cuba, into a Jewish immigrant family from Poland. He served as head of the Coordinating Commission which was the official government recognized organization of the Jews of Cuba and head of the Patronato Beth Shalom, Cuba's largest synagogue located in Havana. For twenty-five years Miller was the main link between the Jews of Cuba and the Communist authorities of the country as well as the link between the Jews of Cuba and Jewish communities and organizations in the world.  

Caribbean

A region of the Americas that consists of a number of islands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. 

Latin America

A term referring to a group of countries in North America, Caribbean and South America where the main spoken languages belong to the Romance or Latin Languages: Spanish, Portuguese and French. 

Havana

La Habana

The capital and the largest city in Cuba and home to over 80% of the Jews of Cuba. 

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, is the capital of the Santiago de Cuba Province in southeastern Cuba. 

21st CENTURY

Communidad Hebrea Hatikva 
Address: Corona 273 e/ Habana y Los Maceo
Phone: (53) (22) 686180 or (53) (22)-624913
Website: www.jewishcuba.org/hatikva
Mail: hatikva@chh.ciges.inf.cu

The first Jewish Community in Santiago de Cuba was founded in October 1924 under the name Sociedad Union Israelita de Oriente de Cuba (Israelite Union Society of the East of Cuba). This organization existed in a rented location until in 1939 they built what would be from then on the synagogue of Santiago de Cuba.