The community of about 1,000 Jews in Havana, Cuba, may be small, but it is both cohesive and committed, according to Rabbi David Novitsky, who recently returned from a mission there.
Novitsky, the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pa., traveled alone to Havana to transport pharmaceuticals to the city’s Jewish population, and to learn about Jewish life in the Communist country.
“I wanted to see the lifestyle, values and how synagogue life is affected by the nature of the government,” he said.
What he found surprised him.
“I saw a lot of freedom there,” he said.
Visiting each of the three synagogues in the city, he was taken with such sights as the display of the Israeli flag alongside that of Cuba, and twice daily minyans at the Orthodox congregation.
“The Jews there pray the same way we do,” Novitsky said, “praying for a return to Zion, and praying for Israel.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a Communist country,” he added. “I was surprised. You know that the state owns everything, but I felt pretty free walking around.”
While poverty is prevalent in Havana, many people have businesses on the side, he said, while the government seems to look the other way.
The three synagogues — one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform — all have services on Shabbat. Challah is baked weekly in the Orthodox synagogue, and provided to members of other congregations. Kosher meat is for sale once a month from a storefront butcher.
“The Jewish community is pretty much connected, even though they have different observances,” Novitsky noted. “The Orthodox and Conservative and Reform are all in the same boat. It’s not like here. They all know each other — the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi. There are no walls there.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)