Pope Francis recently arrived for his first visit to North America and the Caribbean, first landing in Cuba and then traveling on to the United States. Only the third Pope to visit the island since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, he could not have come at a time of greater expected change.
As part of his visit to Cuba, the Pope visited Havana and several other cities, leading a mass in the capital that even inspired some exiles to return to the island they left many decades before. The open celebration of Catholicism, and of religion in general, in a state that once declared itself atheist is an important symbol of changes underway on the island. In Cuba today, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are on the calendar, and Christmas Mass is even broadcast on official state television. These changes represent a growing pluralism and openness to religion (even if actual religious observance can be more variable).
But this isn’t the only example of the growing acceptance of religious practice in Cuba. Indeed, the story of Cuba’s Jews and the changes they have experienced since the 1990s, reveals other facets of the way religion and politics can intersect to open avenues for change.
It was clear to many observers that Pope Francis’ decision to visit Cuba, especially paired with the trip to the U.S., had less to do with a religious renaissance, and more with regional politics and the close role the Pope played in facilitating a reconciliation between the US and Cuba. The multiple meanings associated with this visit are not surprising; Pope Francis has become a global symbol of progressive ideals, including his positions on climate change and attention to poverty and forms of structural violence and inequality.
More than just the symbolism of his hop-scotch from Cuba to the U.S., Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba is also an occasion to reflect on what tolerance and religious pluralism can mean, and how the social ties and connections that cross borders support the practices valued in an open society.
One of the key moments in the announcement of the opening of ties between the U.S. and Cuba was the exchange of prisoners, including the release of American Alan Gross (noted as a humanitarian gesture, rather than a formal part of the exchange). Gross was a contractor for the U.S. government who had been imprisoned for allegedly trying to subvert the Cuban nation because he brought electronic equipment meant to provide unfettered access to the internet (which, at the time, was illegal) for the Cuban Jewish community. The work fell under the auspices of USAID and its democracy promotion program.
Gross was not the first American Jew to visit the Cuban Jewish community. Despite its small size (current estimates are of about 1,000-1,500 people), Cuba’s Jewish community has become a destination for American Jewish philanthropic organizations and other Jewish tour groups interested in learning about Cuban Jews and offering donations to help support local Jewish institutions and practices.
The community was at its peak in the early 1900s, with some estimates at 24,000 in the year 1924. Large waves of migration came from Turkey (following the fall of the Ottoman Empire), and then later Russia and Eastern Europe, arriving in Cuba due to immigration quotas from the United States. Although a clear minority, they found a refuge from persecution there, building their lives and institutions, including synagogues and schools, that reflected their considerable internal diversity. (There were both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish organizations, with Jews speaking Yiddish and Ladino, and affiliated with various political ideologies.) Although many began as peddlers when they first arrived, by the 1950s, they had become members of the middle class, with many owning small businesses. The 1959 Revolution affected them as it did most of the Cuban middle class, prompting approximately 95 percent (of a community that numbered 15,000 at the time) to emigrate, many to Miami.
Among the small number of Jews who did not emigrate, some continued to practice their religious traditions, though they were harassed—as were other religious groups under the revolutionary, atheist state. Despite the deterioration of their institutions over the years, Cuba’s remaining Jews did their best to sustain their ritual and community spaces, such as the Patronato synagogue in Havana. Jewish identity continued to be important for those that remained, as chronicled in the writing and documentary film work of anthropologist Ruth Behar.
Several important changes in the 1990s allowed for the renewal in Cuba’s Jewish community. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba opened itself to greater tourism expanding contact with the outside world. In 1992, the regime also officially changed the Constitution to make the government secular rather than atheist. This allowed Cubans to practice religion more freely (including Judaism, Catholicism, and religious practices related to Pentecostal Christianity and Santería). The changes also allowed outsiders, including American Jews, to visit on religious grounds.
Through this new form of tourism and cultural exchange, Jewish community centers and heritage organizations organized trips to Cuba and North American philanthropies such as the Joint Distribution Committee sent material donations of supplies and kosher food. Beyond these contracts and donations, these outside groups also offered support for larger projects, including the restoration of the Patronato Synagogue. New ties with Israel also developed, with some Cuban Jews emigrating to Israel and others participating in athletic competitions, such as the Maccabiah tournament (Olympic-style games held in Israel every four years). In another example of support for the community from abroad, Cuban Jewish participation in the games was facilitated with the help of Steve Tisch, one of the owners of the Giants, who agreed to purchase their uniforms after a personal visit to Cuba.
In addition to tourism, new forms of cultural exchange allow Cubans to connect to one another, such as the Bridges to/from Cuba project, launched by Ruth Behar and inaugural poet Richard Blanco, as a blog that is a space for Cubans everywhere to share their stories, through poetry, writing, art, and other forms of expression.
While the visit of Pope Francis may have been about politics as much as religion, it also spoke to the many ways in which politics and political change rest on human beings and the points of connection they have built across national borders. This includes the visits and support of American Jews to the Cuban community as well as new forms of cultural exchanges. As small as the community is today, it was, and is, sustained in many ways by the support of those abroad. Their story points to the importance of contact across borders—embodied in the recent U.S.-Cuba changes—and how it builds and sustains the values of tolerance and pluralism. May it grow.