Little is known about Cuban Jews until the 19th century. It is believed that marranos, Jews forced to convert to Christianity but still practiced quietly as Jews, arrived with Columbus in 1492. Later on Jews immigrated from Brazil to Cuba, however, they still faced persecution under Portuguese rule. Cuban Jews assimilated and were involved in trade with Europe.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Cuba and in 1898, helped break free of the Spanish Colonial rule. In 1906, the first Jewish Synagogue was founded called United Hebrew Congregation. The congregation is Reform. Jews of Cuba were very assimilated into society, involving themselves in trade and the sugarcane industry.
In the early 20th century, Sephardic Jews begin to arrive. Initially, they wanted to make a stopover in Cuba to get into the United States because there was a high quota to enter from elsewhere. Many decided to stay in Cuba because there was low anti-Semitism in comparison to the rest of the world. In 1921, the first Sephardic congregation was established called the Union Israelita Benei Zion. By 1952, more than 1,200 Jews lived in Cuba. Ashkenazim prayed in Shevet Ajim, while Sephardim prayed in Tiferet Israel.
In 1959, Cuba faced a revolution and approximately, 94% of Cuban Jews fled to United States or Israel. Anti-Semitism had drastically increased. Practicing as a Jew became increasingly more difficult. Jews who stayed, would pray and keep the Sabbath quietly in their homes. Those who didn’t flee, stayed because either they were too poor, too old or genuinely believed that the revolution would bring positive outcome. Many of those who stayed were very assimilated in the Cuban society. Jews and Christians who stayed faced heavy persecution.
While at that time, Israel and Cuba still had a relationship, it wasn’t very good. Israel considered Cuba their worst enemy. Cuba allowed pro-Palestinian and terrorist training camps on their land. Books such as Anne Frank’s memoir and Elie Wiesel’s Night were banned. By the 1960s Jews were forced into labor camps and many Jewish activists were under strict surveillance. Even though Jewish life was made immensely difficult, many Jews still prayed and went to Sunday school. In the 1970s the Santiago School of Havana and the Zionist Union of Cuba were forced to close and about a decade later, the United Hebrew Congregation was abandoned.
In the 1990s, with help from Canada, Jews secretly immigrated to Israel. Today the Jewish population is about one tenth of what it was at the start of the century. There are many outreach programs to help Cuban Jews and to rebuild its once thriving community. Organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) offer schools, health care, medication and food to Cuban Jews. There are only 3 synagogues left in Havana, one is Conservative, the other Sephardic and the last is Ashkenazi Religious. There is no Chief Rabbi of Cuba but rather a Chilean Rabbi is the Cuban chief rabbi. Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler travels several times a year from Chile to Cuba to practice as their Rabbi.
Rein, Raanan. Argentine Jews or Jewish Argentines?: Essays on Ethnicity, Identity, and Diaspora. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Print.
Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon, 1996. Print. Going to Cuba