A few years ago, Adela Dworin noticed a tall stranger in a worn T-shirt looking around the Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana’s Vedado section.
When she greeted him and struck up a conversation, he asked her about the needs of the Cuban Jewish community. Dworin, now president of El Patronato, the House of the Cuban Hebrew Community, told him her dream was to send some 50 Jewish athletes from Cuba to the 19th Maccabiah Games in July 2013.
He said he wanted to help. Dworin told him the athletes and trainers needed uniforms but it would cost a great deal of money. Dworin thought maybe he would offer $10 or $20, if anything.
Then the visitor told her to look more closely at his scruffy shirt. It said New York Giants. The man then revealed himself as film producer Steve Tisch, a co-owner and chairman of the football team. He offered to pay for the uniforms on the spot. They were worn by the first official Cuban team ever sent to the Maccabiah Games – although individual Cuban athletes have participated from time to time.
That these Cuban Jewish athletes made it to Jerusalem at all was one more indication of the rebirth of Cuba’s small Jewish community – thanks to the generosity of Jews from aboard who are helping the revival – and the government’s increased tolerance for religious expression.
At the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, there were 15,000 Jews on the island and five synagogues in Havana, but the community dwindled after thousands left in the 1960s and death claimed many of the older Jews who stayed.
The Cuban government has always allowed Jews to practice their religion, but for decades, until 1985, rabbis weren’t allowed on the island to perform religious ceremonies.
By 1990, there were only about 1,000 Jews left in Cuba, most of them elderly, and only a handful who remembered the old rituals. Only about 100 people gathered for services on High Holy Days at Beth Shalom.
“Sometimes we couldn’t every get a minyan for the High Holidays,” Dworin said.
And services had to be held in a small sanctuary downstairs because the walls of the main synagogue were riddled with termites and rain came in through holes in the roof as did birds that sometimes nested and left droppings all over the seats and floor. Slowly the Cuban Jewish Community was dying out.
But now it numbers around 1,500 with about 85 percent living in Havana. There are also Jewish families in Santiago, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Guantanamo, Holguin and a few other locations.
Dworin traces a significant opening toward religion to Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. “During the 1990s, there was an opening for religion in general, not just for the Catholic Church, especially after John Paul came,” she said. “It used to be that you couldn’t be a Communist Party member or a member of the Young Communist League if you believed in God, but now things have changed and they must continue to change.”
In November 1998, 11 months after John Paul’s visit, she and other religious leaders were invited to meet with Fidel Castro. She asked him why he had never visited Beth Shalom. He said he had never been invited. When Dworin said she would invite him to the temple’s Hanukkah party, the Cuban leader asked what Hanukkah was.
“I told him Hanukkah was the revolution of the Jews and he said he would come,” Dworin said. That December, Castro arrived at the party and his brother Raul has participated in subsequent Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies.
Now Dworin is looking forward to Pope Francis’ arrival in Cuba on Saturday. “I think it will be very important for Cuba – first of all because he’s a Latin American,” she said. “I think he is a pope of our times and progressive.”
Dworin plans to attend “Francisco’s” Mass next Sunday in Havana.
In the early decades after the revolution, there was a rift between Jews who chose to stay and those who left, said Dworin, whose parents came to Cuba from Poland in the 1930s, fleeing Hitler.
“Many families were divided after the revolution. It was very sad,” she said. “The children left and the parents remained.”
But there was a rapprochement as Jewish communities abroad discovered the efforts Cuban Jews were making to keep traditions alive and began to reach out to them. “Thanks to them, Judaism exists in Cuba,” Dworin said.
The Comite Central Israelita of Mexico, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation helped out by sending special food for Passover. But matzoh, gelfite fish and kosher chicken loaf only arrived for special occasions.
Now, shipments from abroad have improved to the point where Dworwin says she can keep kosher. The government also allows a kosher butcher shop and Jews get one kilo of kosher meat per month on their ration cards.
Samuel Szteinhendler, a rabbi from Chile, also visits El Patronato every two months, and the community’s young people know the prayers and blessings for Friday services, too.
The process “of teaching our members to be Jews again” began in the 1990s with the help of the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Dworin said. “We now have lay people who can celebrate bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs.”
Success also came at the Maccabiah Games. The Cuban team won five medals.
One of the best indicators of the rebirth of Judaism in Cuba is the young people who now can be seen around the community center. The former women’s gallery in the synagogue has been turned into a Sunday school classroom for 10- to 12-year-olds.
Downstairs, colorful drawings by younger children commemorating Jewish holidays and depicting the flag of Israel decorate the walls, and on a recent afternoon, a group of teenagers hung out in a lounge, watching videos and using the computer. Eighty children attend the synagogue’s Sunday school, Dworin said. “Now, we have a new generation and they know a lot about Judaism.”
But some younger Jews have chosen to emigrate to Israel. “I’m happy they’re going to Israel but I’m sad because I want the community to grow and become 15,000 Jews again like it was at the beginning of the revolution,” she said.
One of the biggest transformations has come in the synagogue, which has been meticulously restored through donations, including those from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the JDC, and The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The $250,000 restoration included a new roof, replacing window glass and installing 300 new seats to replace the seating chewed up by termites.
There also is a pharmacy at El Patronato, thanks to donations from abroad but it still needs more antibiotics and sugar-free food for young diabetics. Outside, a van that ferries elderly Jews to services,carries provisions to those in need and runs other errands is parked. It was contributed by Bill and Maggie Kaplen, of Tenafly, N.J. and says “Kaplen Van” on the back, provoking many questions from passing Cubans who think the words are Hebrew and want to know the translation, Dworin said.
“We receive many, many visitors now. We aren’t isolated any more,” Dworin said. “We hope that more Jews will visit Cuba with the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.”
U.S. Congressional delegations stop by, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who was the lead U.S. negotiator in the recent normalization talks, has visited three times, Dworin said.
Tisch still keeps in touch with Dworin via email. He said he hopes to go to Cuba again before the end of the year to visit her, check up on the community and experience Cuba now that diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba have been restored.
He said he expects to go after the Giants play Tampa in November, or more likely tack on a trip to Cuba when he comes to Florida for the team’s Dec. 14 game against the Miami Dolphins.
What prompted his Maccabiah Games gift, he said, was that it was a perfect meshing of his professional and personal life _ he has long been involved in youth sports _ and the force of Dworin’s personality. “She’s charming, passionate and so invested in the Jewish community in Havana,” he said.
When Dworin explained the need for the uniforms, “in a matter of seconds, I said, ‘Done,’ ” said Tisch. “It touched me so much. It was just so meaningful, so symbolic for Jewish athletes to wear the uniforms from their country in Israel in what is one of the most watched Olympic-style events in the world.
“I walked out of that temple in my dirty shirt feeling really good,” Tisch said.
Dworin admits she can be convincing. “I say I have a master’s degree in schorrering (schnorrer is a Yiddish word for beggar or scrounger) but I am a beggar for good reasons,” she said.
Hollywood director and producer Steven Spielberg also stopped by El Patronato in 2002, leaving a note that is on display. It says: “When I see how much cultural restoration has been performed by you and others, it reminds me again why I am so proud to be a Jew.”