Salomón Susi, the president of Adath Israel, the only orthodox synagogue in Havana, assures me that the Jewish community in Cuba is still very much alive as a vibrant part of the country. The community at Adath Israel includes approximately 900 of Cuba’s total Jewish population, currently approaching 1,500 on the entire island.
There are five synagogues in Cuba – three in Havana, one in Santiago and a comparatively new one in Camaguey. Camaguey’s synagogue opened in 1998 in a converted turn-of-the-century house connected to a row of homes in the city’s center. Prior to Cuba’s revolution there were reportedly 800 Jews in Camaguey but like many other Cubans, the majority of them emigrated to South Florida or Israel so that today there is just 30 Jewish families remaining. In select other cities in Cuba, families gather in individual homes to keep their faith alive.
There are records of Jews having been in Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace their ancestry to Marranos who fled the Spanish Inquisition. In the 20th century many more fled to a welcoming Cuba from Eastern Europe. Prior to the Revolucion the Cuban Jewish population approached 15 – 20,000 at its peak.
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba changed its constitution allowing for religious freedom. The Jewish community began to rebuild. Today the community is very much part of Cuban life; Salomón shows me a photo with Raúl Castro hanging proudly near the synagogue’s entrance.
Adath Israel is located in Habana Vieja at Picota 52 esquina Acosta. It has an extensive facility including two sanctuaries and a community centre. It also sustains Cuba’s only kosher butcher and while it cannot afford a permanent rabbi, it regularly celebrates important holidays and events.
Havana’s two other synagogues are in Vedado. The larger one, the impressive El Patronato – la Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba/ Gran Synagoga Bet Shalom is at Calle I Esq. 13 in Vedado. Built in 1957, it was an striking facility and while some of the building has been sold, the portions of the building that remain in the hands of the Jewish community currently being restored.
Even though the population is small, Jews in modern-day Cuba manage to keep their culture and traditions alive thanks, in part, to considerable support from abroad including the US and Canada.