ESRA Magazine
ESRAmagazine categories

Cuba’s Jewish Community

A tightly-knit Jewish community whose members escaped the Spanish Inquisition and survived Castro's revolution is there to stay, despite the challenges and uncertain future on the island. 

Some 1,200 people living in the capital of Cuba identify as Jews. Much like the city itself, the small but tightly-knit Jewish community is characterized by many contrasts: Rich in spirit, it is bereft of basic services like quality healthcare and household goods. A walk through the city feels like a journey back in time. In this urban setting, the roads are filled with vintage American cars that speed by magnificent colonial buildings, situated in dilapidated neighborhoods. But while Havana may appear like it is caught in a time warp, its Jewish community is experiencing an awakening after a long and uncertain period. The Jews of Cuba "struggled to survive after the revolution," says Mayra Levy, the president of the Hebrew Sephardic Center of the city. Ninety-five percent of Cuba's Jews – about 15,000 people – left the island in 1959 in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Jewish exodus was fueled by Castro's attack on capitalism in which Jews, mostly merchants and businessmen, were visibly entrenched. Levy explains that in the years following the regime change, the community lacked leadership. Eventually it started to take shape again: "Small as we are, we grew and are today vibrant, maintaining our traditions and activities." One of the members of the community whose family remained in Cuba after the revolution is Fidel Babani Leon. Born in 1959 and named after the revolution's famous leader, Leon became a bodyguard for Castro. An expert on Cuba's Jewish history, he takes us on a tour of its former and current Jewish landmarks. During a drive to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city, Leon explains that the original Jews arrived in Cuba in the 15th century; they were conversos, individuals who converted to Roman Catholicism in their flight from the Spanish Inquisition.

Leon says that the first Jew to set foot on the island was Luis de Torres, born Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri. An explorer and translator, Torres is said to have sailed with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on his iconic Santa Maria ship, arriving in Cuba on November 2, 1492.

In his wake came the others in three major streams of immigration that account for the present-day population: First were American Jews, who settled in Cuba after the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the early 20th century Sephardic Jews arrived from Turkey, escaping the Balkan Wars. Leon, whose family was among those who left Ottoman Turkey for Cuba in 1910, explains that Sephardic Jews' assimilation was easier because they spoke Ladino (a Judeo-Spanish language deriving from Old Spanish). Last to arrive, beginning in the 1920s, were Eastern European Jews. Many of them were trying to escape the Nazis and hoped to be admitted to the United States.

Jews in Cuba, for the most part, are the offspring of intermarriage. However, most strongly identify as Jews, with many active in religious and cultural life. According to Leon, they rarely experience anti-Semitism. "Jews were very lucky to find in Cuba a welcoming place to live," he says.

Despite banning religion on the island and aligning with the Soviet Union against Israel, Castro allowed practice of Judaism. He claimed to be a descent of conversos, which may have influenced this policy. Eventually, he allowed the community to rebuild its religious institutions in 1992, following the relaxation of restrictions.

Suszanna Santana Sadi, youth leader of the Havana Jewish Community

Israeli folk dancing and Jewish hotels

Leon takes us to the Patronato, the focus of Jewish life in Havana. It is a modern and spacious building, with a façade dominated by a large white arch. Located in the upscale Veldado neighborhood, the Patronato houses Havana's main synagogue and Jewish community center, where religious services and holiday events take place. It is also home to a Sunday school where 60 children learn, and offers cultural programs such as Israeli folk dancing, a popular attraction for the youth.

"I started coming when I was 10 years old, mainly because of the Israeli folk dancing," says Suzanna Santana Sadi, 17, who leads the Jewish youth movement in Cuba. "It's amazing how it draws us together, and with Jews all over the world."

Leon walks us through Old Havana to the historic Jewish quarter, located close to the city's port. Once teeming with Jewish-owned shops, kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish schools, the Jewish quarter was a popular destination for cruise ships that would dock nearby.

Today, the neighborhood is run-down, with few establishments still operating. The former kosher bakery "Flor de Berlin" is now a government-owned store, meagerly stocked with bread and other baked goods that are provided with ration cards. Next to it stands the Adath Israel Synagogue, the only Orthodox synagogue that remained post-revolution. There is also a Holocaust memorial, a large six-branch candelabra sculpture, surrounded by an iron gate.

The neighborhood is home to two other buildings that draw the attention of Jewish travelers. One is the former Hotel Luz, where Jewish immigrants stayed when they arrived on the island until they could find permanent housing. The other, a new hotel named Raquel, in a renovated Art Nouveau building. It was once a government office and had then been converted into a hotel with the purpose of attracting Jewish clientele. The interior is decorated with Jewish symbols. There is a restaurant serving Jewish food and a Judaica shop operates on the premises, where each of the 25 rooms is named after an ancient Jewish hero. The Hotel Raquel is off limits to Americans since 2017 because the U.S. placed it on its list of restricted properties tied to the Cuban government.

Paying respects ... Fidel Babani Leon at the Jewish cemetery in Havana

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, tightened since President Donald Trump assumed office, has impacted the island's Jewry as with the general Cuban population. Poverty, lack of basic commodities, and rationing prevail. However, there is a steady influx of Jewish tourism. Tourists are attracted by the proximity of the island as well as by its old-fashioned and exotic character. Many American Jews travel to the island on the "people-to-people" exemption that allows for religious and educational trips. They often bring religious objects, medicine, and humanitarian support that has helped sustain the community.

Havana's Jews get support from the nonprofit American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other American and Canadian Jewish organizations, which provide medications, kosher and other foods, assistance to the elderly and the well-attended Shabbat dinners at the Patronato that is free for all members of the community. Because there is no full-time clergy, the JDC arranges visits of rabbis who arrive – usually from Chile or Argentina – to conduct holiday services and life-cycle events. On a typical Shabbat, it is the youth of the community who lead services.

So, what does the future have in store for Cuba's Jews? Mayra Levy says she is concerned about the community's prospects: "We have a very fragile equilibrium," she says. Leon, however, is much more optimistic. "There will always be Jews here," he ascertains. "The flame of Judaism in Cuba will never go out."

Reprinted with kind permission from, July 25, 2019 

Related Posts



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Monday, 22 July 2024

Captcha Image


MagazineIsrael- 2019-homepage
There are pockets of coexistence
which kindle hope.
Old cities and very new cities with amazing stories
Find out about the Israeli art scene
The best tours in Israel with ESRA members