HAVANA – A friendly welcome, a sense of joy, an air of need.
This is what my granddaughter and I encountered on a recent visit to the largest synagogue in Cuba’s Jewish community, which once numbered 15,000 or more.
But when Fidel Castro’s Revolution triumphed in 1959 and began confiscating businesses, most Jews fled. Today there are only 1,200, nearly all in Havana, where the main congregation is housed in this building with an impressive white front. There is a soaring arch, a Star of David and doors emblazoned with symbols of the Tribes of Israel.
An inscription above proudly declares:
TEMPLO BETH-SHALOM GRAN SINAGOGA
DE LA COMUNIDAD
HEBREA DE LA CUBA
You should come too.
You’d find Conservative services that are a blend of Hebrew and Spanish.
And a haimish Shabbat dinner of roast chicken, rice, beans and avocado served at long tables in a social hall, a cluster of menorahs and Israeli flags complementing the piano in a corner.
The people at the synagogue, which is also known as the Patronato, are a mix of ages and of traditions.
Adela Dworin, president of the synagogue and of Cuba’s Jewish community, says the Ashkenazi contend they make up the majority of its informal membership and the Sephardi contend they are the majority. Her advice: “Let’s say that we are 50-50 and it will be OK for both.”
Prominent among the pictures gracing the office and lobby areas are photos of Dworin with Fidel and Raul Castro, each of whom has visited the synagogue.
It includes a Sunday School, a library, women’s and youth organizations, and a free pharmacy always looking to replenish its supplies. My 18-year-old granddaughter, Isabella Zanobini, and I chipped in several over-the-counter meds.
Did I mention that Dr. Rosa Behar, the woman in charge of the pharmacy, is a cousin of Providence’s Vicky Esquenazi Bharier?
The congregation receives substantial support from the Joint Distribution Committee, the Canadian Jewish Congress and other agencies and visitors, such as missions like the one from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island that visited after we did and another from Temple Beth-El in Providence that visited earlier in 2016.
The synagogue, built in 1953, fell on hard times as Jews fled Cuba and the remainder became more and more assimilated. But in the 1990s as the Communist Party dropped its hostile attitude toward religion, activities began to revive, and the JDC and Greater Miami Jewish Federation underwrote a modernization of the facility. A grand dedication ceremony in 2000 celebrated the renewal.
As handsome as the main sanctuary is, you can’t help but notice some ceiling panels are missing.
“We have a leak and we have to fix the roof and we have no money,” says Dworin.
She adds, with no subtlety, “We accept donations.” She’s looking for $20,000 or $25,000.
Dworin leavens her persistence with a sense of humor. It has been suggested that she has a master’s degree in schnorring, but that understates it, she chuckles. “I have a Ph.D!”
Grab a “Sidur Boi V’Shalom para Kabalat Shabat y ocasiones especiales” and sit down in the sanctuary. Upward of 100 people are here this Friday night in September, some of them Americans who have arrived on a tour bus. They include Sharron Rich of Framingham, Massachusetts, a cousin of former Rhode Island state Rep. Sandy Barone.
Services are conducted by lay leaders trained by an Argentinian rabbi who now lives in Chile and visits periodically. The Conservative worship unfolds in Spanish and Hebrew. With my limited language skills and my Reform orientation, I am frequently lost. The many unfamiliar tunes don’t help.
Fortunately, Aliet Achkienasi, leading the service, episodically announces the page numbers in English. She is a 27-year-old meteorologist.
Later, Ida Gutsztat takes a turn at the bimah. A retired economist, she is 68, and that’s a story in itself. Her parents were Holocaust survivors. In 1948, desperate to leave Poland, unable to get into the United States, the wife pregnant, the couple arrived in Cuba on May 4. Ida was born May 29.
Many congregants sit passively through the service, yet at times the scene is reminiscent of the American civil rights movement or the last night of summer camp, with worshippers standing, arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying to the music of the prayer. Indeed, toward the end, 15 or so young people of high school and college age come forward and sway as they sing “Aleinu” and “Adon Olom.”
When the service ends, kisses fill the air. Perfect strangers kiss me. (I’m not complaining.)
Adela Dworin is ill this night, but I speak with her later by phone.
Hearing I was a journalist, she rushes to say that her father was a cousin of Martin Agronsky, a prominent American television correspondent who visited Cuba in 1957 and interviewed dictator Fulgencio Batista. In one of life’s little coincidences, Agronsky’s daughter, Julie, is married to Steve Romansky, one of my best friends from my days at Brown University.
In my conversation with Dworin, I broach the idea of getting young rabbis to come from America and settle in at the temple for a year at a time. She says the congregation has been getting by fine having only a visiting rabbi. Well, I ask, what about when this rabbi retires?
“Maybe when he retires he comes to Cuba,” Dworin chirps. “This is a wonderful country.”
She says it’s a good place to be Jewish – with no anti-Semitism. “We have no security people outside and nobody bothers us.”
Cuba is a beautiful place, but the economy still lags. It is the single biggest thing that prompts young people from the congregation to leave for Israel or elsewhere and impedes the growth of the congregation.
And so the struggle continues.
“Please be in touch,” says Dworin. “Don’t forget us.”
M. CHARLES BAKST is a retired Providence Journal political columnist.
Editor’s Note: For further reading on this subject, see “AN ISLAND CALLED HOME: Returning to Jewish Cuba,” by Ruth Behar. Rutgers University Press, 297 pages.