History of the Jews in Cuba

Author: Scott Berenthal / Courtesy by Aish Latino

Jews have been in Cuba since the time of Columbus. Today there are fewer than 1,500 Jews, and they continue to uphold the culture and traditions of Judaism.

Jews have been in Cuba since the time of Christopher Columbus and played a vital role in the country’s development, first as participants in the United States’ war against Spain, and later in helping José Martí secure the country’s independence as a sovereign nation. The community grew and developed in the decades that followed, becoming an essential element of Cuban society, culture, and economy.

At its peak, during the 1950s, Cuba’s golden age, the Jewish community numbered more than 15,000 people who arrived in two great waves of immigration. The first brought Sephardic or Turkish Jews, who decided to leave the declining Ottoman Empire and began to arrive at the beginning of the 20th century. Then the country received an influx of Ashkenazi refugees, known as the Poles, who came from the ashes of Europe and used the island as a temporary refuge while awaiting permission to enter the United States.

However, many of them chose to stay permanently in Cuba and became the backbone of a vibrant and successful middle class of merchants who integrated into mainstream Cuban society. In their new adopted homeland, these immigrants helped build a Jewish community that boasted three synagogues, a kosher restaurant, Jewish schools, a cultural center, and even a cemetery in Guanabacoa, outside Havana.

During the 1950s, Havana was considered the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, with the latest advances in technology, fashion, and entertainment that existed in the United States. Following the Cuban Revolution in the late 1950s, most Jews left the country searching for new opportunities in the United States, South America, Canada, or elsewhere in the Caribbean, but a small group remained. Although there are currently fewer than 1,500 Jews in Cuba, they continue to uphold the culture and traditions of Judaism.

The institutions founded by their ancestors are still active and in use, continuing to host religious services, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other cultural events. The Sephardic Center, which serves as a kind of Jewish Community Center, even has a small but informative exhibit on the Holocaust that recounts the experiences of immigrants who arrived as refugees in Cuba. A sad but remarkable story is that of St. Louis, the ship that was denied entry to Cuba and sent back to Europe with 900 passengers who eventually died at the hands of the Nazis.

As a functioning synagogue, the Board of Trustees (Beit Shalom) has a private “pharmacy” that organizes help and assistance in the distribution of medicines to the local community, both Jews and non-Jews. In fact, the pharmacy is widely known in Cuba as one of the best stocked in the country thanks to the generosity of visiting Jewish travelers.

More recently, in 2019, he opened a kosher bed-and-breakfast, Chateau Blanc, in the Nuevo Venado neighborhood of Havana. Founded by a Cuban Jewish family who was a member of the community during the 1940s and 1950s, this is the first and only facility of its kind on the island to offer Kosher food, produce, and catering, as well as Jewish-themed décor. Its mission is to encourage visitors to come and learn more about the Jewish community, and to help it grow and prosper.

Jews have been in Cuba since the time of Columbus. Today there are fewer than 1,500 Jews, and they continue to uphold the culture and traditions of Judaism.

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