For the first time since the Cold War, It has been proposed by the Cuban government to give its citizens the freedom to leave the country without government permission.
The question is, how would this affect the Jewish community of Cuba?
Prior to 2000, there were approximately 2,100 Jews in Cuba. Today, it is down to approximately 1,500 and 50 percent of the population is over 50 years of age.
The Jewish community, with our help, has accomplished wonderful things in the past 10 years. It has three large synagogues in Havana, one in Cienfuegas, a new synagogue in Santa Clara and several small synagogues that operate out of the homes of the leadership of the community.
All of these synagogues have grown to give the young and older congregants what they need. There are two things that keep them happy: their families and la comunidad (the Jewish community), which helps them with all the Jewish events and Judaica that is needed to teach the children.
I have spoken to many persons in the [Cuban] Jewish community, and they think the proposed change sounds better than it actually may be.
Most people who are familiar with the Jewish community there believe this change may not be a utopia. In Cuba, everyone is given housing, a food allowance and a small stipend of approximately $25 a month. In addition, everyone is given an education through college (if they qualify academically). This may not seem like much, but it is worth thinking about.
Although the Cuban government has not let its citizens leave for the United States before, Castro has allowed them to settle in Israel and sometimes other countries. In fact, the Jewish community there has lost 40 to 50 persons to Israel in the past 10 years.
How will this be affected by the loosening travel restrictions?
On another point, it is not yet known if the U.S. government will do anything to help those who leave. Without our help they will have problems surviving; they will leave Cuba with practically nothing. Many older Cuban Jews believe they will be unable to survive without some help.
Relying on Cuban Americans for assistance may not be an option. There are 1 million Cubans in the United States, but many of them have been here for years and generally have no ties to the Cubans who might come once travel here is permitted.
What’s more, the Cuban government has stated that if their citizens come to the United States and things don’t work out, they can return within two years. And then what? Will they still have their housing and other allowances?
To be sure, many young people may want to move to the United States, but I suggest they take a wait-and-see attitude.
By the way, the Cuban government will not allow certain classifications of Cubans — doctors, scientists, researchers — to leave.
This edict by the Cuban government is expected to go into effect by January 2013. Cuban Jews tell me we need to wait to have more information, and then decide if this might work for them.
In the meantime, those Cuban Jews who decide to come will need our help, and we will have to activate our Jewish agencies to work with them — our brothers and sisters from Cuba.
(Stanley Cohen, who lives in Squirrel Hill, is the past international chairperson of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project and has made 40 trips to the island.)