Local couple visits Cuba’s Jewish community
Tropical explorationNot your usual sightseeing tour

Local couple visits Cuba’s Jewish community

“There’s a lot of focus on making sure everyone has enough to eat and medicine,” she said

Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba is home to the Sephardic Jewish community living in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Abigail Salisbury
Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba is home to the Sephardic Jewish community living in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Abigail Salisbury

Abigail Salisbury wasn’t even aware that American tourists visit Cuba before she began to research a trip to the island country just over 100 miles from Florida.

“For a long time, there were these requirements during the Obama administration, where if you were part of an educational program you could participate, but we didn’t know if you could still go,” Salisbury said. “We did some research and discovered that if you were engaged in activity that helps the Cuban people, you could go to the island.”

Under the Biden administration, “help” is broadly defined and can include assisting Cubans by shopping in their small businesses.

Salisbury is the state representative for Pennsylvania’s 34th House district and has had a longstanding interest in different forms of government. She’s also Jewish and was curious about the Cuban Jewish community.

Before the Cuban Revolution, the Caribbean nation was home to nearly 15,000 Jews, whose ancestors may have arrived in 1492 with Christoper Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas. What is certain is that the modern Jewish community began to arrive on the island by 1898 following the Spanish-American War. After the 1959 communist revolution, most Jews left the country.

Before the pandemic, Salisbury was told, about 2,000 Jews remained in Cuba, but that population, centered in Havana, was mostly elderly and shrank during COVID. Many immigrated to Israel or another country.

“As an elected official, I was very interested to experience what an actual socialist country was like,” she said. “I was also interested in the Jewish community in Havana.”

She and her husband, Andrew Horowitz, flew to Cuba last month and stayed for four days. Despite her position with the Pennsylvania House, Salisbury stressed she went on this trip as a private citizen.

What she found was an impoverished nation with an engaged Jewish community, despite its size.

“We went to both the Sephardic [Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba] and Ashkenazi [Templo Beth Shalom] synagogues, which work in very close relationships,” she said.

Although she wasn’t there for Shabbat, she heard the Friday night services are large. Like many American congregations, though, daily minyans present a challenge.

“They have what they jokingly call the ‘Cuban Rule,’” she said. “Because they can’t always get 10 people, they count the Torah as a person.”

Cuba’s Jewish community is so small that sometimes a Torah is called upon to fill a minyan. Photo by Abigail Salisbury

Congregations play a different role in Cuba than they do in the States. Salisbury said the shuls distribute aid to the community and even maintain a pharmacy because of the difficulty in obtaining medicine, over-the-counter drugs Tylenol and basic first aid — something the couple learned firsthand.

“My husband cut his finger while shaving,” Salisbury said. “In America, it’s not a big deal, you just grab a Band-Aid. In Cuba, there’s not a Band-Aid available.”

Salisbury said there is a person in Miami who organizes fundraising to send money and needed items to Cuba’s Jews regularly, including food packages.

While Salisbury and Horowitz were visiting the synagogues, care packages were being prepared and challah was being baked to be distributed on Shabbat.

Care packages ready to be distributed to Cuba’s Jewish community. Photo by Abigail Salisbury

And while Cuba was supposed to be an atheist regime after the revolution, Salisbury said there is a laissez-faire attitude toward religion, so the Jewish community there is not the target of a lot of hate.

“There are so few Jews that it’s not like people even think about, ‘Let’s go and be antisemitic,’” Salisbury said. “From what I hear, people just don’t really care that much. If people want to be Jewish, they can be Jewish.”

Cuba’s Jewish community doesn’t have a rabbi, she said. Instead, it’s lay-led by an older man who was there before the revolution and didn’t leave. He taught Hebrew to children and adults before COVID, but most of those people emigrated since the pandemic.

The community’s senior center, which used to offer various programs, is now rented out to a contemporary dance troupe.

Rather than focusing on youth, as do many American congregations, Salisbury said Cuba’s congregations are particularly devoted to seniors because they comprise the largest segment of Jews.

“There’s a lot of focus on making sure everyone has enough to eat and medicine,” she said.

The American donations help, she noted, adding that the care packages prepared at the synagogues contained kosher food.

Jewish or not, Salisbury said, life in Cuba is bleak.

“What you get from the government can’t get you through,” she said. “Sometimes, I think we hear, ‘You get free food, free housing, free education, free all these things.’ You get certain things but it’s a very low level of supplies. It’s not like you live a middle-class lifestyle that’s all free.”

The economy, she said, is depressed. Tourism is the largest part of the economy, but it is confined to certain sections of the island. She said the businesses individual Cubans own are extremely small.

Salisbury stayed at a privately owned bed-and-breakfast that was small and inexpensive.

“I think there were like four or five rooms — that’s the kind of thing Cubans are allowed to own,” she said.

Despite the hardships, Salisbury said that the Cuban Jewish community is tightknit. The trip, she said, provided an opportunity to see the community up close, something that can be difficult in some European countries.

“In Italy or Spain or France you have to prove you’re Jewish to get into the synagogues,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve traveled somewhere where I was able to actually see what was going on in the Jewish community. That’s one thing I thought was nice.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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