The leader of Havana's Sephardic synagogue is urging American Jews to put aside their fears and visit Cuba. The 1,400-member community thrives off contact with the wider Jewish world and can use all the help it can get, according to Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba.
"We have our Jewish life with Cuban style. We do our services with heart," even though there hasn't been a full-time rabbi on the island since the early 1960s, Levy, a retired physician, said during an interview last week at the offices of the Jewish Exponent.
The 63-year-old mother of two traveled to the United States to take part in a panel discussion on Latin American Jewry at the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.
Levy is spending a month in the country, speaking in different synagogues. She's seeking financial assistance for a newly opened senior center serving Havana Jews.
Many elderly Jews live on about $15 per month, though health care is free, she said.
The community also relies on donations from abroad for religious items such as prayerbooks, Shabbat candles and matzah.
For most Americans, traveling to Cuba requires taking part on an organized religious or educational mission, though last year President Barack Obama eased many of the restrictions.
Roughly 1,100 Jews reside in the city, with about 300 others spread throughout the island. More than 15,000 Jews lived in the country on the eve of Fidel Castro's revolution in the 1950s. At the time, most of them emigrated, settling in Israel and the United States, as well as Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.
By many accounts, Jewish life had become virtually dormant until Cuba changed its constitution in 1992, which allowed for greater freedom of worship and for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to begin assisting the Jewish community.
This has led to a renaissance of Jewish life over the past 20 years, but many of the younger, most active community members have moved to Israel, according to William Recant, an assistant executive vice president at the JDC, who has traveled to Cuba roughly 50 times. Aliyah became an option for Cuban Jews shortly after the constitutional change.
"Somebody has to stay," said Levy, whose two grown sons both live abroad. "What can I say to a young man who decides to have a better future?"
Levy said that she frequently has been asked during her trip about Alan Gross, the social worker and contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was sentenced to 15 years for bringing prohibited equipment, including satellite phones, into the Communist nation, under a controversial democracy building program funded by the U.S. government.
The Cuban government has labeled Gross, who made five visits to the country and had substantial contacts with the Jewish community, as a spy. Several Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
Levy said the community received Gross warmly. "But he broke the Cuban laws," she said, adding that members of the community visit Gross from time to time.
She insisted numerous times during the interview that, unlike other Latin American countries, Cuba has no anti-Semitism. She pointed out that there are no fences or guards outside Cuba's five synagogues, three of which are in Havana.
JDC's Recant said the government officially states there's no anti-Semitism on the island.
While he said he couldn't verify whether there is no anti-Semitism, he commented that racial hatred was far from the biggest problem facing Cuban Jews. They are very poor by American standards but have their basic needs met, he said.
One area that the JDC found lacking was access to medication, and the organization managed to set up a pharmacy inside one of the synagogues.
When it comes to running Jewish programs, one of the biggest problems is literally getting people there, he said. With so few Cubans owning cars, many individuals need to spend two hours or more on a city bus just to attend an event.
Levy said she wants more American Jews to see and experience Jewish life on the island for themselves. While she's not a particularly big fan of the U.S. government or its policies — she blames the 50-year-old embargo for harsh living conditions — Levy said she loves the American people. The U.S. government still prevents Americans and American compan- ies from selling virtually all goods to Cuba, with the exception of medicine and agricultural goods.
"We are the forbidden island," she said, adding that maybe it's time for people to rethink that characterization.