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In my mind’s eye, a quintessential postcard from Cuba would automatically contain an antique, 1950s-era American car, a machine from Cuba's pre-revolutionary past. A few years after Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara marched into Havana in revolutionary triumph in 1959, Washington broke off relations with the island and imposed an economic boycott, making spare parts unavailable. A common sight is that of Cuban grease monkeys performing engineering feats to keep these vintage jewels on the streets. I remember Cuba is a living, breathing car museum, a time capsule of a bygone era and a photographer's dream.
photo by Rhonda Spivak


A few years after Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara marched into Havana in revolutionary triumph in 1959, Washington broke off relations with the island and imposed an economic boycott, making spare parts unavailable. A common sight is that of Cuban grease monkeys performing engineering feats to keep these vintage jewels on the streets. I remember Cuba is a living, breathing car museum, a time capsule of a bygone era and a photographer's dream.
photo by Rhonda Spivak


photo by Rhonda Spivak


photo by Rhonda Spivak

 


EDITORIAL: THE FUTURE OF OUR SYNAGOGUES-THE CUBAN EXAMPLE: WILL WE MANAGE TO SAVE AS MANY SYNAGOGUES AS CUBAN JEWRY?

by Rhonda Spivak, December 16, 2013

Vintage cars and a Jewish community that figured out a way to preserve its synagogues
 

I have been looking back at photos I took while in Cuba in 2009, when I would get up early at the Melia Hotel in Havana and meander out onto the nearby streets and snap shots of a grumbling myriad of vintage cars, some rusted, others well preserved, lurching on.

But as time has gone on I have been recalling even more so a story that I heard while there about what Cuban Jewry did to save their synagogues after the socialist Revolution. After Fidel Castro took power and nationalized private business and property, 90 percent of the Jewish population of some 15,000, many of them business owners, fled the island. There remaining 10 percent were largely not observant.

The small Jewish community of Havana had to decide how to preserve their synagogues, and ensure that they would not become Cuban state property if they fell out of use. There are stories that there were so few Jewish people coming to pray that in a Cuban minyan which normally requires 10 Jewish adults, the Torah was counted as a qualifying member.

But the story I remember most is the real way that the small community of Cuban Jews managed to preserve all its synagogues and keep them all in use after the Revolution. How could they do this with so few Jews? The answer: They had 10 men who went from synagogue to synagogue every single day and prayed in every synagogue to ensure they were all in use. They ran their minyan every morning and every evening in every synagogue--a testament to how devoted and industrious they were when it came to preserving their communal property. It is a heroic story about the power and triumph of a few devoted individuals, dedicated to preserving their heritage and history.

 

Sure enough, many years later a Jewish family outside Cuba donated funds to restore the Orthodox synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Havana, where today Jews from all over the world come to pray on the High Holidays. A Sephardic synagogue I visited had not been restored--it was in rough shape and the bathrooms were not in use. But it was still there--waiting for the right donor from abroad to restore it. The Conservative Beth Shalom synagogue I visited also housed a Jewish community center, known as El Patronato, and there was also a library and a pharmacy, which distributed medicine to both Jews and non-Jews. (Much of the medication is donated by Jewish groups visiting from North America). (As an aside, The Beth shalom synagogue in Cuba is an example of a synagogue attached to a community centre.)   

 

I've been thinking about this story of Cuban Jews and their synagogues, especially now since our Winnipeg Jewish community will have to grapple with deciding the fate of our local synagogues--how many will remain 20 or 30 years from now ?

 

There is much poverty in Cuba, (basic items such as soap are not always available) with far fewer consumer goods, and smaller, more cramped living quarters than we in North America are used to. The Cuban Jewish Community does not have a Cuban Jewish Foundation (let alone one with 80 million dollars in assets), and yet more than 60 years after 90 % of the Cuban community fled, their synagogues are still standing.

 

They have managed this with less than 2000 Jews. What an accomplishment as a community.

 

And I find myself asking whether we as Winnipeg Jews will manage to preserve as many of our synagogues as they?

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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