The First New Synagogue

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  9/23/1998

CAMAGUEY, Cuba - Thirty six years ago, Alberto Roffe's grandfather dug a hole in this city's only Jewish cemetery, lowered his community's prayer books and sealed the crypt with a bed of concrete.

The island's Communist government had closed down Camaguey's two synagogues, nationalized most of the small businesses run by Jews and led most of the 800 Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews living in this sleepy, interior city to flee the country.

Now, a religious resurgence that in recent years has seen Jews in Havana reclaim their temples and reorganize their communities is reaching Camaguey. The city's 27 Jewish families - the third-largest Jewish community in Cuba - are planning to soon open the island's first new synagogue since Fidel Castro's bearded rebels took power in 1959.

''The only time we were able to come together since (Castro) came to power was to say the Kaddish when someone died," said Roffe, 47, a mechanic who serves as president of the local Jewish community. "Now at least we have a roof under which we can meet. We have nothing else. But what we have is more than we've had in years."

The four-bedroom house on Andres Sanchez Street doesn't look like much. White paint is peeling off all the walls. Electrical wires dangle from high ceilings. And a chicken coup used to raise fighting cocks still stands where a garden is planned.

But for Roffe, who signed the title in June,
the humble, turn-of-the-century house is better than nothing. The opening of the new synagogue is set for Rosh Hoshanah in late September, the final step after years spent obtaining permission to buy the house and months spent renovating the structure.

Roffe, whose grandfather came to Cuba to flee religious persecution in Turkey soon after World War I, says he has dreamed of opening a synagogue in Camaguey since the government prohibited his family from celebrating Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, with other families soon after Castro declared the island Marxist state.
The country's revolutionary leadership had reacted especially harshly against a Catholic Church the rebel leadership associated withthe outgoing Batista dictatorship, expelling foreign priests, exiling many Cuban priests and barring Catholics from certain jobs or government posts. The faithful of other religions - including Jews - suffered. Unable to obtain wax and wicks, Roffe's family, orthodox Jews from the Sephardic tradition, had to use cotton and oil to light the traditional candles. And as more and more Jews exited for the United States, the community disbanded and traditions grew harder to maintain.

But the government's hard-line stance began to ease markedly in the 1980s. Then, with the collapse of Cuba's benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991, Castro took the practical steps of liberalizing the economy and permitting greater personal freedoms, including the practice of organized religion.

In 1992, the government even decreed that one could be a good Communist and still be devoutly religious.

Shortly after, representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York based nonprofit organization that provides cultural, educational, religious and humanitarian aid to Jewish communities, received permission to enter the country. Although much of the focus was on Havana, Camaguey's Jewish community also benefited.

"They taught us how to sing the prayers. They brought books and gefilte fish, and - most importantly - they taught what we couldn't to our children," said Sara Albojaira, 41, a social worker and former president of Camaguey's Jewish community. "Years without formally practicing and without any organized services really removed us from Judaism. Most of us, like me, had to marry out of the religion. There were no Jews."

Things were far different 40 years ago, with Cuba's Jewish community flourishing following a wave of immigration of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe before and during World War II. At its peak before the revolution, more than a dozen synagogues served up to 20,000 Cuban Jews nationwide. In Camaguey, two temples, Shevet Ajim for Ashkenazis and Tiferet Israel for Sephardics, were built in the 1920s for a community that grew to more than 800 Jews, Roffe said.

After Castro's government made its anti-religion policies clear, those Jews who did not flee the island were forced to either observe their traditions at home or allow themselves to be assimilated into the prevailing atheistic culture.

By the early 1990s, only three synagogues remained, all in Havana, where about 90 percent of the is land's estimated 1,500 Jews live.

Roffe and the other Jewish leaders in Camaguey began quietly investigating the possibility of opening a synagogue soon after the Joint Distribution Committee and other international Jewish organizations - including a Philadelphia synagogue - helped unite the city's disparate Jewish population, which had further dwindled in recent years after several families left for Israel. The Camaguey enclave received further boost in 1995, when an Argentine rabbi converted 21 people, mostly spouses and children who have Jewish relatives.

''This community reinvented itself in a few years; it was never organized. Families never knew what other families were doing," said Merle Salkin, 55, director of the Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia, who made her fourth trip here in June to teach Hebrew classes. "People started coming out of the wood work, asking questions and signing up for conversion classes."

In 1996, and after repeated inquiries were ignored, the government granted Roffe and other Jewish leaders permission to open the new synagogue. After finding a suitablehouse, officials delayed authorizing the land sale for two years. Approval for the sale finally came in March, though other bureaucratic obstacles held up the land transfer until June.

Camaguey's new synagogue, a house connected to a row of post-colonial homes in the city's center, will be the country's fifth. In 1995, the government allowed a congregation of about 90 Jews in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city on its southeast coast, to reclaim its former synagogue. '

'This is not something that happens overnight here," Roffe said. "Little by little, with patience, we will have our synagogue."

It was also something that happened with the help of outsiders. The $6,000 to pay for the house came from Ruben Beraja, an Argentine with the International Congress of Latin American Jews. And Salkin's Philadelphia congregation donated $3,000 for renovations and dozens of tallits, yarmulkes and prayer books. Despite the shabby condition of the white house on Andres Sanchez Street, where laundry still air dries on an outdoor patio in the backyard, Jewish leaders says it has become a symbol of the community's resurgence.

''The new Tiferet Israel is our reconnection with the past," said Johandy Crespo, 20, the community's youth group leader, after lifting a stone tablet covering the unmarked grave site where the Hebrew Bibles remained buried. "We are picking up where my grandfather left off. This is our future."

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