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    Despite new hope, old problems remain for Cuba’s Jews

    Despite new hope, old problems remain for Cuba’s Jews
    The 1,500-member community remains over-reliant on foreign aid, despite
    key changes to the Communist country.
    By Josh Tapper Jan. 26, 2015 | 10:50 AM

    JTA – On a recent Friday night inside this city’s Beth Shalom synagogue,
    Aliet Ashkenazi, 25, stood draped in a blue-and-white prayer shawl,
    leading prayers in a mix of Spanish and near-perfect Hebrew.

    It was the first time she had ever led services – a feat considering she
    converted to Judaism seven years ago, after discovering her father was

    The 300-seat sanctuary in the Cuban capital was near capacity, but the
    crowd filling the wooden pews was largely American, comprised of tour
    groups from New York and New Jersey. The next morning, with the
    Americans gone, the crowd had thinned. A handful of youths sat in the
    first few rows, leaving a gray-haired cohort of congregants in the back.

    This is typically how things go for Cuba’s 1,500 or so Jews: Hordes of
    out-of-town guests arrive, bringing with them suitcases full of clothing
    and coveted medical supplies, and then they’re gone, leaving Cuba’s
    diminished Jewish community behind.

    A month since the United States and Cuba announced renewed diplomatic
    relations after more than five decades of mutual recrimination and
    mistrust, it remains unclear how rapprochement will change things for
    Cuba’s Jewish community, which has shrunk tenfold since the end of the
    Cuban Revolution in 1959, when there were 15,000 Jews here.

    “If it will be better for Cuba, it will be better for Jews in Cuba as
    well,” said Ida Gutzstat, executive director of the B’nai B’rith
    Maimonides Lodge, a community center attached to the Sephardi synagogue
    in this city’s Vedado neighborhood.

    Amanda Amato, a 49-year-old secretary, sipping a plastic cup of Cristal
    beer at one of the lodge’s biannual parties, said, “We have a difficult
    economic situation now, but it’s not for all time.”

    Already there has been some easing. Americans – including the thousands
    of Jews who fled Cuba after the revolution – now can send remittances of
    $2,000 every three months to Cubans, four times the previous limit.

    While Cuban Jews endure the same depressed conditions as other Cubans,
    surviving on monthly food rations and salaries that rarely exceed $40
    per month, the community as a whole is the recipient of largesse most
    Cubans can only dream of.

    Cubans generally have restricted Internet access, but computers at Beth
    Shalom are wired, and the synagogue’s youth lounge contains a
    PlayStation and Nintendo Wii.

    Financial support from humanitarian organizations such as the American
    Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has operated in Cuba since
    1991, enables Beth Shalom to provide community members with meals on
    Fridays and Saturdays – often nonkosher grilled chicken or canned tuna,
    followed by coconut ice cream.

    The synagogue office houses the community’s pharmacy, which twice a week
    dispenses free medicine supplied by Jewish tourists and aid
    organizations. While heath care is free in Cuba, over-the-counter drugs
    are rationed for ordinary Cubans.

    Some worry that the stream of international charity from humanitarian
    organizations such as the JDC and B’nai B’rith International has created
    a culture of dependency, particularly among older people who are more
    interested in the much-needed handouts than their Jewish identity.

    Adela Dworin, president of Beth Shalom and the Jewish community’s de
    facto government liaison, said that Cuban Jewry is sometimes hamstrung
    by its financial dependence on aid groups that earmark funds for
    individual projects, complicating where synagogues can allocate donations.

    “It would be better to send to us directly,” Dworin said. “We can’t
    depend our whole lives on Americans and Canadians. We must become more

    The Jewish community also enjoys the support of the regime. President
    Raul Castro twice has attended Hanukkah celebrations at Beth Shalom. The
    country has two other synagogues in Havana and smaller congregations in
    the provincial towns of Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Guantanamo.

    Dworin was granted regular visits with Alan Gross, the Jewish-American
    contractor who served five years in a Cuban prison until his release
    last month. Dworin told JTA that she recently received an email from
    Gross in which he expressed a desire to return to the island.

    Cuban Jewry’s greatest privilege, though, is also one of the community’s
    biggest challenges.

    Ordinarily, Cubans are barred from emigrating without special permission
    from the government. Yet since 1992, when the Cuban constitution was
    changed to accommodate freedom of religion, a government concession to
    stave off unrest once Soviet aid ended, Jews have been allowed to leave
    for Israel. In 2013, 72 Cuban Jews made aliyah, according to Israel’s
    Absorption Ministry – a considerable number given the size of the community.

    Most of the emigrants in recent years have been Jews in their 20s and
    30s, few of whom remain in Cuba. Elianas Quinones, a 19-year-old medical
    student, said 20 to 30 of her friends have immigrated to Israel in
    recent years. The community’s Sunday Hebrew school, Albert Einstein, has
    168 students, some as young as 4. But roughly 40 percent are middle aged
    or older, according to Hella Eskenazi, the school’s principal.

    Though emigration continues, there has been a steady influx of converts
    into the community – mostly Cubans from intermarried families who have
    discovered their Jewish heritage since the early 1990s. Visiting
    Conservative rabbis from across Latin America have helped convert them
    in mass ceremonies. The most recent one was about three years ago, when
    20 men were circumcised at Havana hospital, jumping for joy and crying
    “Mazel tov!” in front of befuddled nurses, Dworin recalls.

    Dworin says she knows of at least 10 more people who want to begin the
    conversion process but can’t because Cuba does not have its own rabbi.
    She estimates that fewer than 20 of the country’s Jews were born to two
    Jewish parents.

    For the few Jews here who keep kosher, they can receive beef rations
    instead of pork. The thick-bearded Jacob Berezniak-Hernandez, leader of
    the nearby Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel and a trained kosher butcher,
    distributes the meat from a small Old Havana storeroom.

    “Cubans deserve a better life, with more materialistic things and more
    freedom,” Dworin said. “If the economic situation in the country
    improves, we hope people will stay.”

    A key factor is whether the United States will lift its embargo of Cuba.
    In his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, President Barack Obama
    called on Congress to cancel the trade embargo, a major step toward
    American investment on the island.

    Luis Szklarz, 76, who attends Adath Israel, which is secured behind a
    gate laced with barbed wire in Old Havana, said as long as the embargo
    remains in place, Jews will continue to leave the island.

    “The old people are going to die and the young people are making
    aliyah,” he said. “There is no future.”

    For Ashkenazi, relieved and exhausted after leading Friday night
    prayers, it’s hard to imagine a future not in Cuba. She describes the
    synagogue, which she attends every weekend, as a home away from home.

    Whatever happens,” she said, “the most important part of my life is here.”

    Source: Despite new hope, old problems remain for Cuba’s Jews – Jewish
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