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June 19, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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L~ ~ : ........ L PAGE 16A HERITAGE FLORIDA ,JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 19, 2009 Cuban Jews ambivalent about possible thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties By Florcncia Arbiser Jewish Cuba, meet with local bolstering Jewish life on the CA~RTAGENA, Colombia (JTA)--The recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United, States is being greeted with caution by some Jews in Cuba. InApril, the Obamaadmin-. istration annotinced it was moving to ease restrictions on American travel to Cuba and money transfers to the island. Then. ltwo weeks ago, the 34-nation Organization of American States agreed to conditionally accept Cuba if Havana was interested. Cuban officials in the past have said they are not in- terested in membership and denounced the OAS. which receives about 60 percent of its funding from the United States. as a tool of American domination. "We would very much like to receive more visitors." Wil- liam Miller, the vice president of the House of the Hebrew Community in Cuba, one of the nine Jewish congrega- tions in the island, told JTA. "Most Cuban Jews rarely travel abroad: the foreign Jewish visitors nourish our souls." But Miller. who often re- ceives Jewish missions from overseas, said the thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties may change the nature of visits to Cuba by American Jews. American Jews are now allowed by U.S. law to visit Cuba only if they are traveling under the auspices of a li- censed religious organization and their trip is ostensibly for religious purposes. They tour Jews, share Shabbat dinner in Cuban homes and even .join in communal ceremonies. But if the religious re- quirement is eased, Miller said, American Jews coming to Cuba simply might head straight for Cuba's Caribbean beaches, as they do in places like Mexico and elsewhere, and ignore the local Jewish community. "It is a challenge for us to see how we get involved with a potential increasing number of visitors." Miller told JTA at a conference of Latin Ameri- can Jewish leaders organized in Colombia last month by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "We must work to spread the word to worldwide Jews that we exist and need contact with them," David Prinstein Sefiorans. who lives in Cuba. told JTA at the conference. Cuba has approximately 1.500 Jews and nine syna- gogues, three of which are in Havana. Before the Com- munist revolution of 1959. Cuba had about 15.000 Jews. but many left after Fidel Cas- tro came to power. Some of those who stayed participated in the revolution, achieving prominence in Cuba's fields of science and culture. For three decades follow- ing the revolution, religion was suppressed, leading to assimilation. But in 1992 the government eased restric- tions on religion, and since then international Jewish aid agencies have built strong links to Cuba's Jews. Their activities are centered on island, including sending religious items to Cuba and helping its Jews with everyday needs. The JDC has a permanent office in Cuba that helps runs cultural, educational and re- ligious programs, including religious education for chil- dren and youth, bar mitzvah prep courses. Shabbat meal assistance, youth camps and activities for the elderly. It even has a drugstore. Groups like the JDC and B'nai B'rith also coordinate missions to Cuba that each year draw hundreds of Ameri- can Jews. "Several families from the United States. Canada and France come to the island and feel committed to the Jewish community," said Yacob Berezniak. a Cuban Jewish engineer and member of the Orthodox congregation Adath Israel in Havana. JDC's executive vice presi: dent. Steve Schwager, said he was not concerned that the personal ties would suffer if travel restrictions were eased. "I am confident that Jewish interest and visits with Cuban Jews will not be diminished by political changes," he said. Cuba's Jews remain desper- ately poor by Western stan- dards, but thanks to the aid of Jewish agencies overseas, Cuban Jews are in a better position than most Cubans. B'nai B'rith provides food and medical assistance in Cuba. One of the group's cur- rent projects includes install- ing a filter for potable water at Adath Israel. Panama's Florencia Arbiser Some Cubans and Argentinians based in Cuba attending a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean Jewish leaders in May organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Colombia. Jews send kosher food to Adath Israel. London-based ORT runs a language lab and provides computer training at the House of the Hebrew Community. Though Cuba does not have diplomatic ties with Israel. Cuban Jews say their community has good ties with the government, which is now led by Castro's brother, Raul. For example, the gov- ernment grants requests munity's good ties with the government are based on the fact that the Jewish commu- nity is involved in religious and cultural activities but never takes part in political issues. Anti-Semitism is virtually unheard of in the country. "As a Jew, I've studied in school "and at Havana Uni- versity with my kipah and never had to face a hostile situation," Berezniak said. by Cuban Jews to leave the "Iwalk calmly in the streets, country to attend Jewish- and I am accepted by my related gatherings, neighbors. Eduardo Kohn. the Latin "Cuba is a peculiar coun- American Affairs director of try. Anti-Semitism does not B'nai B'rith, says the corn- exist." he said. "Unlike other places in the world, we don't need guards in the Jewish buildings." Fernando Lapiduz. the JDC's representative in Cuba. said he is reserving judgment on what Obama's change in approach might mean for Cuba's Jews. "We will have to see how this develops day by day," Lapiduz said. "We might not perceive such a big impact." Berezniak echoed that sentiment. "It is hard for me to see any remarkable change in our routine coming from Obama's announcement," he said.