NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 15, 2009

Many young Cubans want an opportunity to leave the Communist-ruled island for a better life.  Judaism, may offer them a way out, says the Wall Street Journal.

While any Cuban, technically, is allowed to emigrate, very few get the required paperwork from the Cuban government or can raise the thousands of dollars required for documents and transportation off the island.  Jews bound for the Holy Land, however, can expect to have those fees paid by Israel.

The prospect of emigration is helping fuel a revival of sorts in Judaism in Cuba after a half-century of Communism:

  • With as many as 30,000 Jews in the period just before World War II, Cuba's "Hebreo" enclave withered to around 1,000 individuals by the late 1980s.
  • It's up to almost 1,500 today -- with hundreds of other recently departed Cuban Jews now living in Israel or Florida.

"I would be less than honest if I didn't tell you that some people want to be Jews because it offers them the chance to leave," says Samuel Zagovalov, a 62-year-old former oil-refinery technician who directs Sabbath services at the Sefaradí synagogue here on Saturday mornings.

The journey from Havana to Jerusalem, however, isn't easy, says the Journal:

  • The process of converting to Judaism takes years and includes being approved by a council of elders at the synagogue and then an ordained rabbi.
  • Since Cuba has none, usually converts have to wait for a visiting rabbi from Israel, Argentina or Chile.
  • Last but not least, male converts have to submit to a ritual circumcision; in 2007, dozens of adult Cuban men underwent circumcision as part of their conversion process.

Even if they're permitted to leave, life in Israel can be as hard as life in Cuba.  A significant number of the conversos who emigrated have left Israel, Cuban Jews say, most relocating to the United States or Canada.  The difficulty of learning Hebrew is one barrier to a better life, another is the violence.

Source: Joe Millman, "Rites of Passage: In Cuba, a Revival in Judaism Leads Some to Israel; Relaxed Rules on Practicing Religion Draw Converts; a Rise in Bar Mitzvahs," Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2009.

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