Lessons from Cuban Jewry


A group from Temple Beth-El, in Providence, traveled to Cuba on Feb. 10 laden with donations for our Jewish brethren, filled with enthusiasm and the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Even as we delivered our bags filled with pharmaceuticals, it was apparent that we were receiving as much from the Cuban Jewish community as we were giving.

Cuban Jewry has faced a more intense version of our own Jewish challenges – and has prevailed. These Jews give us hope for the future of our own Jewish community.  

Here are a few things we can learn from their ambitious and passionate commitment to Jewish life:

Openness. The Cuban Jewish community is unfailingly open to any person who wants to reclaim their Jewish heritage. After years of religious life being blocked by the Communist regime, few had knowledge of Judaism, and intermarriage prevailed. The Reform movement uses the term “audacious hospitality” for engaging the unconnected. Cuban Jews pioneered this practice – for decades, they have warmly welcomed anyone interested in reconnecting to their Jewish roots and traditions, no questions asked. Their community is successful partly because of its openness and gracious acceptance of all.

Lay leadership. The Cuban Jewish community is primarily lay-lead because it has had no choice. While the Joint Distribution Committee has sent in rabbis over the years, the Jews themselves have had to be the daily stewards of Jewish life. The knowledge that the future of their Jewish community was in their hands alone has created an impressively strong lay leadership where everyone has a vested interest in the well-being of the community. The Shabbat service we attended was led by lay leaders, the dinner organized by others and even the challah was baked by a community member. Additionally, three Jewish communities we visited were led by women. The Cuban Jewish community reflects a refreshingly egalitarian orientation that is instructive to all of us.

Fearlessness about asking for help. Often, when we are struggling, we go to the same sources over and over again for assistance. But because resources of any kind are so limited in Cuba, the Cuban Jewish community has been unabashed and creative in looking outside itself for help. For years, the Canadian Jewish community has been sending Passover supplies. Adela Dworin, the president of the Patronato, Havana’s main synagogue, had us laughing with her stand-up routine describing how she has asked visitors for resources over the years, from money to a van. The Kaplen van, Adela told us, is named for its donor – and they joke that Kaplen is Hebrew for Mitsubishi.  

Resilience. In the face of true adversity, Cuban Jews have persevered. Their desire to preserve culture and tradition has triumphed over political persecution and economic hardship. Uncomplaining, Cuban Jewry simply does what needs to be done to recover Jewish heritage and culture, with an unflagging sense of purpose and humor.

We learn from our Cuban Jewish brethren to go forth with pride in our heritage, joy in observing our traditions, and hope for the future – no matter what political, economic or demographic curveballs come our way. 

SARAH MACK rabbi of Temple Beth-El, Providence, is president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.