Portlanders explore history and aid future of Jewish Cuba

Photo: The Congregation Beth Israel group visits the Che Gervera Memorial Mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba.

Rabbi Michael and Cantor Ida Rae Cahana took 18 Congregation Beth Israel members and friends and two duffle bags of requested supplies (medicines, guitar strings and more) on a recent religious mission to connect with the Jewish community of Cuba. They returned with stories and photos of the beauty, color, history and hopefulness of the people.
“Please bring back our stories,” Cantor Cahana says the group heard repeatedly from the people they met. Though travel and tourism to Cuba were again curtailed during the Trump administration, groups on religious missions are still able to visit and bring gifts.
“Our responsibility is to tell our synagogue and the greater community,” says Rabbi Cahana, who will share the story at the Sephardic Film Festival (see below) as part of that effort.
Today’s Jewish community in Cuba is largely descended from Turkish and Polish Jews who fled persecution in the first half of the last century, but the community proudly traces its history to 1492 when Jews fleeing the Expulsion from Spain sailed with Columbus and formed a community on Cuba. Cuba is now home to about 1,000 Jews, down from a pre-Revolution peak of about 19,000 in 1959.
Despite a depressed economy and the population decline, which continues with many young people making Aliyah to Israel, the people are surprisingly hopeful about their future, say the Cahanas.
“If you look at the demographics, you’d say this is a dying community,” says Rabbi Cahana. “But they don’t see themselves as a dying community. … They say to be a Jew is to believe in miracles.”
“They are hopeful,” adds Cantor Cahana.
The four synagogues in Cuba provide transportation and social services as well as religious, educational and cultural programs. The largest synagogue is Beth Shalom Synagogue, which hosts many programs of
Patronato, the Cuban Jewish community.
“The Jewish community is very organized around providing food, medicines, transportation and social services,” says Rabbi Cahana.
“They are on the ground helping each other, and they rely on outside support,” adds Cantor Cahana.
Rabbi Cahana says that while the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba may have made geopolitical sense when it began after the 1959 Communist Revolution, “The logic of the embargo seems to have fallen away with the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has remained in place.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba was unable to get goods from the United State or Russia, putting tremendous economic strain on the country.
Many restrictions were lifted early in this century, especially during the Obama administration, and tourism flourished. But when the Trump administration reimposed the sanctions, the island nation’s harbors emptied of cruise ships.
Jewish communities around the world bring supplies to Cuba’s Jewish community, which also receives aid from the Jewish Federation-
supported American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (called JDC or the Joint).
While medical care is free in Cuba, many medicines, including aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are difficult to get, all of which the Portlanders took in abundance. The synagogues all act as pharmacies to distribute medicines.
In addition to medicines, underwear and other supplies that “we take for granted,” Cantor Cahana also shared CDs of CBI’s music, and John and Marti Rosenthal
carried a prayer book from Portland’s Sephardic community to Cuba’s Sephardic synagogue.
“Music is very much a part of their life,” says Cantor Cahana, who enjoyed hearing how the Ashkenazi prayers took on some of the syncopated rhythms of Afro-Cuban music.
The visit was the resumption of a series of trips the congregation began before the pandemic to learn the history of Jewish communities and to study the Expulsion from Spain. Meeting Crypto Jews (descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition) in the American Southwest inspired trips to Spain and Morocco.
In addition to Jewish sites, the group experienced the culture of Cuba with tours of sites such as Hemingway’s villa, a cigar factory, an organic urban farm and an art program; a lecture on Cuba’s economic crisis; and a performance by a youth guitar orchestra.
Cantor Cahana says that on a visit to the Che Guevara Museum, “We learned through their lens instead of ours. It was eye opening. It challenges our assumptions.”

Cuba at film fest

Rabbi Michael Cahana will share slides and stories from his recent trip to Cuba  when the 16th Annual Sephardic Film festival screens “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” at 7 pm, Feb. 7.
“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels” explores the little-known story of the Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and found a safe haven on the Caribbean Island of Cuba. Following the 46-minute film, Rabbi Cahana will lead the discussion while participants enjoy Sephardic desserts.
The festival continues with a film each month through May. Admission is free. Films screen at 7 pm at Congregation Ahavath Achim, 6686 SW Capitol Hwy., Portland.
Discussion and Sephardic desserts follow each film. RSVPS are appreciated: info@ahavathachim.com.


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