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Castro supported Cuban aliyah

    A Cuban prays at a shul in Miami
    A Cuban prays at a shul in Miami

    We had fully expected to encounter a "Cuban minyan" - eight men and two Sifrei Torah - on a recent Friday night with the community at Bet Shalom synagogue in the once-affluent Vedado district of Havana.

    On the contrary, the shul was packed with 400 worshippers who stayed on for dinner in the adjacent hall. About half were visiting from the US and Canada and had gathered to support the unique Cuban community of "tropical Jews" or "Jubans".

    The service was conducted in Hebrew and Spanish by a young, charismatic married couple from Santiago de Chile.

    Even more to our surprise, any notion of modest dress had been cast aside in the blistering heat of late afternoon. As we almost fainted in the stifling humidity, my friend, David, found it challenging to focus his full attention on the siddur.

    Much has been made of the Castro family's supposed Jewish roots. Some claim that Castro is a converso surname; others argue his maternal grandfather was a Jew from the former Ottoman Empire. It is also rumoured the Castros do not eat pork (no mean feat on an island that survives on a diet of not much more than pork, beans, rice and rum).

    Certainly, the Castro brothers have always shown discrete favour to the island's Jewish community. Despite a ban on private enterprise in the Communist state since 1961, Castro always allowed the kosher butcher to continue trading independently.

    In 1994, when Israel's chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau visited Cuba, he was warmly received by the comandante en jefe.

    More than 90 per cent of the island's Jews emigrated to the US in the wake of the Cuban revolution of 1959. In a later wave of emigration, known as "Operation Cigar", several hundred Cuban Jews secretly made aliyah to Israel, with the first group of 70 Cuban Jews arriving in Israel in 1994.

    Although exit permits from the island were extremely difficult to obtain at this time, there were no barriers to Jews leaving Cuba for Israel because Castro understood Jewish citizens were returning to their homeland, not abandoning Cuba, and gave the initiative his full support.

    In 1992, a new Cuban constitution allowed religious freedom after decades of state atheism.

    Cuban Jewish life began to be rebuilt, although the US blockade makes Cuba one of the world's rare Chabad-free zones.

    In recent years, Castro authorised the erection of Holocaust memorials in Havana's Ashkenazi cemetery, as well as in Santa Clara, and Raul Castro has attended Chanucah lightings.

    Cubans often describe themselves as the "Jews of the Caribbean", which is partially a reference to their large diaspora: two million live in the US.

    On the death of Castro, there were widely divergent reactions in Havana and Miami, with the latter community in a celebratory mood. Let us hope that the Jewish community can lead the way in the next chapter for the Cuban people, supporting reconciliation based on the ethos shown at Beth Shalom on that sultry Shabbat in Havana.

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