Cuba: It's Complicated

Blog

Eileen Levinson is a designer and artist based in Los Angeles. Her work reimagines, celebrates, and at times critiques Jewish ritual for contemporary audiences. In 2011, she created Haggadot.com, a website for Jews to exchange and personalize content for the Passover Haggadah. This year, she is launching Custom & Craft, a similar collaborative website for Shabbat, weddings, and other Jewish lifecycle events.

Thanks to my ROI Go Network Micro Grant, I traveled to Cuba last fall to visit with the Jewish community in Havana on a trip with JDC Entwine

About 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba in the 1950s, but since the revolution, less than 1,500 remain. Three synagogues still operate in Havana. One Sephardic, one Orthodox, and one Conservative, known as El Patronato. We spent the most time with the community of El Patronato, joining them for Friday night Shabbat services, Saturday evening Havdalah, and a pretty crazy dance party to follow (even the four-year-olds amazed us with their moves).

After a couple days there, I couldn’t help but wonder: where are all the 20-somethings and 30-somethings? Finally, I asked Gabi, a staff member from JDC, who visits monthly from Argentina to lead programming and education. Like me, he is in his early 30s. “So where are all the Jews our age?” I asked him. “They all left,” he replied. 

When the young Jews come of age, most of them eventually emigrate to Israel or elsewhere, leaving an aging community with concerns about their future. To balance that out, the JDC and El Patronado do all that they can to reach young Jews - by providing meals on Shabbat, and welcoming non-Jewish partners to become part of the community, even to convert.

As new members join the Jewish community, and economic ties with the US may evolve in the next decade, the demographic makeup of Judaism in Cuba will inevitably change. I personally am excited to continue supporting the hybrid Jewish community as it emerges and will do my best to seek out artwork and writings to share on Haggadot.com and CustomandCraft.org.

To say that Cuba is complicated would be an understatement, and that’s also why it’s so intriguing. I’ve never seen a community of people both so proud and so kind, despite a history of government restrictions and current economic crisis. Words cannot fully describe it, so I’ll let images say the rest.