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Havana Synagogue Dark for Decades is Once Again Aglow in the Light of Shabbat Candles
Jerry Berke

A small miracle took place in Cuba not long ago.


On a Shabbat evening in May, some two hundred people from all over the world gathered in Temple Beth Shalom near downtown Havana to share in the joyous rededication of the restored sanctuary of the Patronato, the religious and cultural center for Havana's Jews. Among those attending were representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), funded by the UJA Federation Campaign.


They sat in a sanctuary built in the mid-1950s -- unused for more than three decades -- with new windows that now keep birds from flying through the broken glass, a new enclosed balcony containing classrooms for a growing education program, and a nearby computer lab for the Sunday school's 120 youngsters.


There was no question that the event marked a turning point in the Jewish history of Cuba. As Dr. Jose Miller, long-time leader of Cuba's Jewish community said, "Today we celebrate not only the renovation of a building, but the revival of a community."


Once the center of a thriving community of some 15,000 Cuban Jews, the Patronato became part of the Cuban capitol's sprawling decay during the 1960s, almost destroyed by the subsequent departure of nearly the entire Jewish population. Among those who fled extreme hardship that Cuban authorities called simply a "Special Economic Period" were most of the community's leaders, as well as all its rabbis and teachers. In fact, Beth Shalom's congregation was so decimated by the exodus that half the building, housing a Jewish community center and day school, was rented and later sold to the Cuban government.


But in recent years, religious and cultural life among Cuba's remaining 1,500 Jews has undergone a breathtaking revival, leading to a drive to reclaim and restore Jewish communal property. It was made possible by a 1991 law passed by the Cuban National Assembly allowing participation in religious associations. "That was when we turned to the JDC to ensure the continuity of the Cuban Jewish community for years to come," said Dr. Miller.


JDC initiated regular visits by Argentine-born Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, who since 1992 has brought the community religious guidance, ritual articles, and a special passion for touching Jewish lives. "When I first arrived I saw a homemade sign which read Am Yisrael b'Cuba Chai - long live the Jewish community of Cuba," Rabbi Szteinhendler recalled. "I said to myself this is my mission, to help make this come true."


Soon, JDC began sending in shipments of pharmaceuticals. Then a free pharmacy opened at the Patronato. Jewish doctors started dispensing medicines to anyone in need. With this program and others like it, the pulse of the Patronato began to beat stronger once more.


And in yet another sign of Jewish renewal, the community in Havana recently celebrated with one of their own, a young man named Alberto Behar, who completed JDC training to become Cuba's first native Baal Kore in nearly forty years.


"When he reads the Torah in a Cuban voice, I know that this is our Torah too - not something from the outside," said a proud member of the congregation.
Alberto's Cuban voice was loud and strong on that Shabbat evening in May as he helped lead the congregation in prayer, accompanied on the keyboard by JDC's former coordinator for communal activities in Cuba, Diego Mendelbaum. "I could see in the scrolls the reflection of my father's and grandfather's faces," Alberto said.

Noting the role of Cuba's Jewish youth in leading the revitalization of faith throughout the island, Dr. Miller remarked: "We were sure that in the deepest part of their soul was a little spark of Judaism remaining alive. The only thing we had to do was reach them and revive that flame."