Stanley Cohen was very blunt about conditions at the only kosher butcher shop in Havana, Cuba.
He said the furniture was busted, the workspace was filthy and the meat was spoiling.
“It lost about 60 pounds of meat a month because they didn’t have proper refrigeration.” Cohen said. “Let me say this: You would not want to buy meat from there.”
That’s about to change.
Cohen, a Squirrel Hill resident and international chairman of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, has been facilitating a $30,000 renovation project at the butcher shop in the old Jewish section of the Cuban capital called Habana Vieja.
The price tag may suggest that the project is not so massive, but Cohen noted that $30,000, which the Project and private donors are putting up, goes much further on this communist Caribbean island than it would in the states.
As part of the renovation, the butcher shop will be expanded. It will have new refrigeration installed, get painted and scrubbed down then fitted with new display cases.
Most important, the new shop, which is expected to be ready in three weeks, will have longer hours, staying open four days a week instead of one.
“That’s really the biggest difference,” Cohen said. “If someone couldn’t get down there on the right day (before the renovations), they couldn’t get the meat.”
The butcher shop is not glatt kosher and there is no certifying body that oversees it. There is no mashgiach. The butcher, Samuel Zagovalov, doubles as a B’nai B’rith lodge president.
“Sam is about as certified as you can get (in Cuba),” Cohen said. “He has been trained to cut kosher meat. He has been permitted [by community leaders] to kasher meat and has been accepted by the people who kosher meat.”
Founded by Cohen in 1995, the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project offers missions to Cuba, where its goal is to facilitate Jewish life. There are about 1,500 Jews in Cuba — down from a high of 16,000 who lived there prior to the revolution.
However, the community is enjoying a revival. Synagogues exist in several cities and many young people have reconnected with the community.
Cohen has made 36 trips to Cuba.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-687-1005.)