For nearly 500 years, Jews in Cuba have been putting down roots, creating a flourishing religious and cultural life. Since the establishment of Israel and the Cuban Revolution, however, the population has dropped dramatically: down to 1,700, from 25,000 in 1945. The recent history of the Cuban Jews has been a complex one, negotiating religious observance within a Marxist framework, and working to keep the community involved in Jewish life.
Struck by the eagerness for Jewish education in Cuba, American June Safran has founded the Cuba-America Jewish Mission as a means for American Jews to help fill that need.
“We want to strengthen people who know they are Jewish but don’t know what that means,” she said. In a country where more than 90% of marriages involving Jews are interfaith, many non-Jewish spouses have also “fallen in love” with Jewish practice, but lack the knowledge and resources—prayer books and Torah scrolls among them—to continue along this path. Through ties initiated by Safran, several San Francisco Bay Area congregations maintain a sister-synagogue relationship with those in Cuba. They make regular visits, teaching Hebrew as well as learning Ladino songs and traditions.
Religious observance in Cuba is diverse: Sephardic and Ashkenazic, traditional Orthodox and egalitarian Conservative, urban and rural. Within each of these communities, the women play a central role, as synagogue presidents, leaders of committees and educators. To gird women’s efforts, Safran says, “we want to help bring the religious traditions into the home—not just in the synagogue. Home celebrations and daily rituals of all kinds, little things like mezzuzot and Hanukah menorahs, are needed in order to remember that God is a part of our daily life. The more resources the women have, the stronger the family becomes.”
June Safran, The Cuba-America Jewish Mission, (510) 526-7173; www.jewishcuba.org/cajm. Or in New York: Edan Unterman, Committee for Cuban Jewry, (212) 687-6323.