On a street where old mansions are now predominantly deteriorating multi family flats, Havana’s Jewish community has been able, albeit modestly, to retain their roots at the Centro Hebrea Safaradi de Cuba Templo which was built in 1954.

Certainly not of great architectural importance, this grey building looks more like a mammoth concrete block. The front is interrupted by four square unadorned columns set on the top of a crumbling staircase and in front of three large dark wood doors, once used as the entrances. These days, the 1,000 Jews who live in Havana (there are 1,500 Jews in the entire country) use a side door of a small attached building.

One could easily think they’re in the wrong place since the thumps and groans that come from a room on the synagogue’s main floor is now a gym, open to the public.

Being Sunday my concern was that no one would be available to show me around. But luck in the form of the director, Raquel Marichal Maya, was at the bottom of the granite ramp. With our hand gestures and her little English and my few Spanish words, we were able to communicate.

Raquel kindly took me up to the small synagogue where every Friday night and Saturday morning, services are held, officiated by a community member. And there are minyons (ten men) daily. Although originally a Safardic synagogue (Jews from Spain, Portugal and North Africa), it is now an Askanazi congregation (Jews from Europe).

Before entering, Raquel kisses the mezzuzah ( a small holy scroll attached near the doorway). The room, since that is what it is, isn’t very large and is definitely dreary. Holes, where ceiling tiles once were, are prevalent. The 90 green velvet chairs are shabby but neatly positioned in front of the carved wooden small ‘bimah’ which sits on a thread bare Oriental rug. However, there are five very important and interesting hand tooled leather chairs, from Turkey, with crests at the top, signifying Israel and Cuba. In the ark are nine, 200 year old Torahs also from Turkey. Two velvet covers are creatively decorated with small silver Torahs behind tiny silver doors.

Raquel tells me that the ark is circa 1904. She also says that it’s the most important and largest collection of Holy Scrolls in Cuba, which would only make sense since there never was a huge colony outside of this city.

Since there are no rabbis in this country, officiating at the various services is the job of the synagogue’s president, Jose Levy. Because of the country’s politics, all marriages are civil. There have been exceptions when a visiting rabbi from New York or Mexico is in the country and after the civil marriage, the couple has a traditional marriage under a ‘chupah’ (a covered canopy). Then the room is decorated with ribbons and floral arrangements as would be with most weddings. There are approximately 10 marriages each year and about three Bar Mitzvahs. Even though the circumcision rites exist, there isn’t a ‘mohel’ but the surgery is done by a practicing doctor.
As for kosher food, it’s non existent.

After leaving the hall, Raquel invites me downstairs, our starting point. However, now I wander into the room where the weekly kiddush is held. It’s even more tired and worn than upstairs. Exposed machinery for the refrigerator sits on the floor. The ceiling is in even worse condition than the prayer halls. Tables wobble, chairs are shaky. But as sad as all this is, Raquel emphasizes that these standards are no worse than other religions and their places of worship. She also states emphatically, that there is no anti Semitism. But with such a small and non-observant community, it is a great achievement to have been able to preserve Judaism at all.

I leave Raquel thanking her for her kindness. And on leaving, I wonder what we could do for this small run down synagogue.

Calle 17 #462 esq. a “E”.
Vedado C. Habana Cuba
Codigo Postal 10400
Telephone 832 6623
Email: judiosefarad@yahoo.com

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