Like many of the Caribbean islands, Cuba also received its first Jews inhabitants when they sailed along with Columbus at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Ben Frank provides a thorough background in Hadassah magazine.
The first Anousim arrived in 1492, Frank writes; one of them was Luis de Torres, who was sent by Columbus on exploratory expeditions for gold. He did not find gold, but he did discover something that would add to the riches of Spanish coffers: tobacco. Torres eventually settled in Costa Rica (see entry here).
Other famous Anousim who came with Columbus were Juan de Cabrera on La Pinta, and Rodrigo de Triana. According to Wikipedia, another Jew – Francisco Gomez de Leon – was put on trial during the Inquisition in Havana. He was later executed in Cartagena and his large fortune was confiscated.
A second wave of Jewish immigration to Cuba occurred 100 years later in the 17th century, when groups of Jews fled Brazil during the Portuguese reconquest of the country. They promoted a flourishing trade with the Antilles and nearby islands.
In the 18th century, Jewish merchants extended this trade to Hamburg, Amsterdam and New York. Several were severely persecuted by the Inquisition during these centuries and their possessions confiscated; eventually most assimilated.
Modern Jews in Cuba
The current Jewish community in Cuba does not represent a line of continuity with the Jews of the 18th century. Its origins are linked to the War of Independence from Spain in 1868 and the Spanish-American War of 1898, which saw Jews among the troops invading the island.
American Jews began to settle at the end of the 19th century as veteran soldiers or as businessmen. They engaged mostly in import and export, as well as in sugar and tobacco farming.
In 1904, they founded the Union Hebrew Congregation with a Reform synagogue, and in 1906 acquired a cemetery. In the early 20th century, Sephardi Jews from Turkey and North Africa arrived.
Ashkenazi Jews came after World War I, using Cuba as a transit stop to the United States. However, after Washington’s imposition of quotas in 1924, many stayed on the island. By 1924, 24,000 Jews lived in Cuba.
During and following World War II, the Jewish population of Cuba dropped in half, to only 12,000. New Jewish refugees, this time from Antwerp, introduced the diamond-polishing industry and by 1944 established 24 plants employing 1,000 workers.
More than 90 percent of the Jews in Cuba left after Castro and his revolutionaries marched into Havana on January 1, 1959. Although the Castro led revolution was not directed against Jews, it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily middle class private business oriented. The reason for the flight was not anti-Semitism, but the economic shift from capitalism to communism. The majority of those who remained were either firm believers in the communist system that frowned on religious practice, were intermarried with strong non-Jewish family attachments, or were too poor to leave.
In its heyday, there were five Jewish elementary schools, one Jewish high school and five synagogues in the city.
In the early 1990’s, Operation Cigar was launched. In the period of five years, more than 400 Cuban Jews secretly immigrated to Israel.
Outreach programs have started to reach out to interfaith couples living in Cuba’s remote provinces, in many instances the spouses have converted to Judaism and are raising their children Jewish. More than 60 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population are converts, according to the Joint Distribution Committee. Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, visited Cuba in 1994 and deemed the conversions valid.
Today, the Jewish population of Havana is only 1,500 and several hundred more in the provinces. Nevertheless, historical Jewish buildings are being repaired and new books are being brought in, primarily via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC is also supporting the costs for maintaining the small Jewish community, which is nearly entirely intermarried today.
Despite its small size, there are three synagogues in Havana with regular minyanim each Shabbat and on holidays. Adath Israel, located in Old Havana, is the city’s Orthodox Shul. It also has the only mikveh on the island. This synagogue received regular support from Chabad in Toronto, Panama, and Peru and Florida for many years. Rabbis and educators were sent for each holiday and a few weeks in the summer. Now the synagogue has enough trained individuals to maintain its religious life and social programs.
Meals are served twice a day to those who come for services and snacks are provided for those involved in programs during the day. The majority of the membership of this congregation is made of retired people in their seventies and eighties but now there are more children. In late 1994, the first Orthodox Bar Mitzvah, in thirty years, was held here and the young man still participates by leading services, and is currently the treasurer of the congregation. Other bar mitzvah’s occur occasionally.
Visits to the Cuban Jewish community today can be arranged through the Cuba-American Jewish Mission organization.
A documentary film about the Jews of Cuba can be seen here.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a good article about the Cuban Jewish community.
A list of articles about the Jewish community in Cuba can be found here.
Steve Kastenbaum, a reporter for CNN, visited Cuba to trace his own Jewish roots and reported on the visit here.
An article on the Jewish community in Camaguey, Cuba is here.
Even the Havana Journal newspaper wrote about the Jewish community there.