Editor's note: This article is part of a series by Boston University journalism students.
HAVANA, Cuba — As several dozen Cuban Jews gathered for the Passover meal in March, men and boys wore yarmulkes embroidered with palm trees and the Cuban flag.
Their Jewish skullcap design reflects a legacy of a community that has existed here for centuries, but is now stagnating and could disappear.
The Patronato — the synagogue and community center where this Passover dinner was held — drew Cubans from every part of Havana. Leaders of the Jewish community sat at the head table. Several Americans, either Jews or friends of the local Jewish community who came bearing gifts, joined them. The room buzzed with energy and loud conversation.
“We never stopped existing,” Samuel Zagavalov, 66, one community leader, said. “We always kept at it — even with difficulty.”
The difficulties have been plentiful.
Read intro by Stephen Kinzer: A specter is haunting Cuba
According to community leaders, no rabbi has lived in Cuba since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Many Jews, especially those who were wealthy and had ties to the deposed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, fled soon after the regime change — most to the United States, a handful to Israel.
Cuba’s Jewish community traces its lineage back to the age of Christopher Columbus, when, according to local lore, some seamen were Jews escaping Spanish oppression.
The first Jews in Cuba were predominantly Sephardic, a branch of Judaism whose ancestors comprised the once-massive Jewish communities of medieval Spain and Portugal.
During the 1930s and '40s, Ashkenazis — another branch of Jewry — fled persecution in Eastern Europe for Cuba.
By 1945 there were about 25,000 Jews here. Now there are fewer than 1,500.
“Ninety percent of the Cuban Jewish population left after the revolution, not because of anti-Semitism but because of class and economic issues,” Zagavalov said. “But this included the religious leaders of the community, the rabbis. So the community had to adapt, and we have.”
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Jewish communities that lack a rabbi traditionally establish a “minyan,” a group of 10 practicing faithful, to hold prayer services once a week and on religious holidays. They lead the congregation and conduct bar and bat mitzvahs for 13-year-olds, according to Zagavalov, but only a visiting rabbi can perform conversions and weddings.
A minyan exists here now, but at some points in recent decades it was difficult to find even 10 Jews willing to participate. During those periods, the community relied on what it called a “Cuban minyan,” a group of fewer than 10 that's not recognized under religious law.
Because Cuba was a colony of Spain, Roman Catholicism has long been the predominant religion here. That also combined with indigenous and African spiritual customs to produce other faiths such as Santeria.
For decades Castro’s government sought to enforce atheism. Religious freedom has expanded in recent years. Even in the early period of revolutionary rule, however, when Castro was cracking down on the Catholic Church, he made a point of praising Jews for waging what he called a “national liberation” struggle comparable to the one he led.
In 1998, Fidel Castro came to a Jewish holiday celebration at the Ashkenazi synagogue in Havana. Adela Dworin, a Cuban Jewish leader who was there, said in an interview that he paid homage to Jews and their history.
“What could move me more than a struggle of a people to preserve its traditions, its religion, and its culture?” Castro asked the group, according to Dworin. “In 2,000-some years, you have preserved your culture, identity, religion, tradition. I’m trying to remember if any other culture has accomplished this.”
Dworin has appealed to Americans and other foreigners to send books, videos, and other teaching aids than can be used in classes at the makeshift Hebrew school she helps direct.
“Volunteers from our community teach Jewish history and culture to the younger generation, passing it on,” she said.
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Almost every private business in Cuba was nationalized soon after the 1959 revolution, but the kosher butcher shop in Havana was one of the few exceptions. It still exists, and the government makes sure it is stocked even at times when few other butcher shops on the island have any meat for sale.
“It is a form of showing respect by honoring our dietary restrictions,” said Zagavalov, who was a kosher butcher for 20 years.
For some, professing Judaism may also be a way of joining one of the few communities in Cuba that's not directly under government authority. Community members say that Jewish centers like the Ashkenazi synagogue and the two others that exist in Havana have become spaces for independent thought, both religious and secular.
Some Cuban Jews who have emigrated to the United States, however, doubt the integrity of the community here. They suspect that some Cubans claim Jewish ancestry simply because it affords them access to beef and gives them other benefits. Jewish ancestry can also make it easier for Cubans to leave the island, since it can qualify them for an exit visa to Israel.
“There are really only 600 or 800 Jews in the whole country,” Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said in a 2004 interview. “The rest have converted to Judaism so that they can get matzo and kosher meat.”
A Chilean rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, visits Cuba once or twice a year to minister to the Jewish community. When he came last December, he reportedly performed 92 conversions and 27 weddings in a single night.
Conversions and inter-faith marriages, discouraged in some Jewish communities, are welcomed here as a way to keep the struggling community alive.
The Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar has estimated there may be no more than 25 Cubans with what she considers fully Jewish roots. “The island has been scoured from end to end,” she asserted. “There aren’t very many hidden Jews left to find.”
In the absence of a rabbi, Cuban Jews improvise their own versions of Sabbath services, bar mitzvahs, and other religious rituals.
“We make a life with our traditions, as best we can,” said Sarah Behar Hequin, a mathematics professor at University of Havana. She is a member of the Sephardic congregation, which maintains its own synagogue, as does the even smaller Orthodox community.
Cuban Jews plan to send a team to this summer’s Maccabiah games in Israel, a global competition for Jewish athletes. A group of American Jews will foot the bill.
“It will be the first time ever that a team from Cuba will compete in the Israeli Olympics,” David Prinstein, a community leader, said.
Despite these hopeful signs, though, Cuba’s Jewish community seems more likely to shrink than grow. Twice in recent years, young Cuban Jews interested in becoming rabbis have been sent to Israel to study. Both chose to remain there rather than return home.
Their decision reflects the fragility of the Jewish community here. Like many Cubans, Jews are eager for the chance to emigrate, community members say. If that becomes more possible, as seems likely in the next few years, many may leave. Others may choose to fade back into the secular mainstream.
Although this year's Passover dinner here was joyful, it may mask ominous truths. Jews in Cuba have proven resilient, but their future in Cuba, just like the future of Cuban politics, is highly uncertain.
This spring, Boston University journalism and photography students made a weeklong trip to Cuba. By special arrangement, GlobalPost is presenting six stories that emerged from their trip. The introductory piece is by Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times foreign correspondent who was the students' journalism professor. The five that follow were written by his students. Photos were taken by students working under the guidance of prize-winning photographer Essdras Suarez.