The "conversos," or Crypto- Jews ... landed with Christopher Columbus during the "Discovery" or came during the years of the Conquest and colonial domination in order to escape the Inquisition ... -- From "The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba," by Maritza CorralesCuba's current Jewish population is 1,500 of its 11 million population. Synagogue groups travel there to provide support in various ways.
Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz and his wife Sonia didn't expect to see an American soldier's grave in a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Havana.
But there it was: a sepia-toned, oval photo set into a rectangular piece of pure white marble, leaning against a gravestone lined with bold Hebrew lettering. Despite more than 50 years' exposure to the subtropical climate, the photo still shows a handsome, dark-eyed young soldier, his uniform cap jaunty on his head.The gravestone's inscription was also a surprise to the rabbi of Temple B'nai Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in Rockville Centre:
"Isaac, son of Aryeh Leib Bender, who fell in a mitzvah war in Korea on the 5th day of Sivan in the year of 1952, may his soul be bound up in the bond of life."The Newsday story touches on how these groups help with medicines, school supplies and other essentials, religious items. They traveled to the island country with religious exemptions, one of a number who make the annual trek.
Cuba has six synagogues - Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic - and three are in Havana.
In 1959, everything changed for the 15,000-strong Jewish community, after some five centuries on the island; 90% left and most went to the US. Practicing Judaism was discouraged, but in 1992, the constitution was changed to permit religious practice, and Castro visited the main synagogue.
Today, synagogue attendance is increasing. In some places, like Cienfuegos, there are no synagogues but groups of Jews meet to maintain their traditions and have a small Hebrew school.
"They said they were very inspired by having us come to see them," Sonia Schwartz said. "They said it helps keep them going. It was like meeting your own family."Another innovation - like American bnai mitzvah children twinned with Russian children - is American children helping the Cuban community in various ways. Bar mitzvah students collect supplies for the congregations.
While in Cuba, the Schwartzes received an invitation to the bar mitzvah of Alberto Mordecai Alvarez Fuentes.Read the complete story here.
"I saw this bar mitzvah boy as a symbol of the Cuban Jews," Schwartz said. "Before the '90s, it was unthinkable that a boy would study Judaism and know Hebrew and stand in front of Torahs -- and, now, he is.
"That's the story of the Cuban Jews," he said. "They consider themselves part of the global Jewish community."