What are the chances?  Imagine finding a long-lost relative on an old cobblestone street in Havana. Locating an 89-year-old Cuban gentleman by the name of Solomon Gonte was not on the itinerary for the 21 Jewish Detroiters who recently experienced four eye-opening days visiting Cuba’s Jewish community. But, on a small corner of Jewish life,  just outside the Community Center of El Patronato (Beth El) Synagogue, a little Jewish geography proved it’s a small world after all.

A chance encounter

“It was Saturday night and our group had returned to El Patronato for Havdalah services,” explains Susan Cassels Kamin, who staffed the mission to Cuba along with Federation’s Chief Executive Officer, Scott Kaufman, and Chief Financial Resource Director, Andrew Echt. “As we were leaving the bus, there was an old man asking if we were from Michigan. I heard someone say ‘yes.’  Then the man called out the name “Gonte.”  I stopped in my tracks upon hearing a name that I know as well as my own. “Gonte” was my stepfather’s mother’s maiden name.”

Describing the encounter, Susan continues, “This man was holding up a document, pointing to my stepfather’s name “Nate Light.” When I told him that this is my father, his eyes welled with tears, as did mine, and we hugged.  Meeting Solomon Gonte blew me away! He has no family in Cuba. He lives alone in his own home in Havana, walks to the synagogue every day. We sat together during the service. And, then it was time for me to go back to the bus.”

Solomon Gonte at El Patronato Community Center
Solomon Gonte at El Patronato Community Center

“When I relayed my story to the group, a number of them said that they had seen Solomon at El Patronato the night before at Shabbat services. I have since heard from other members of our Jewish community who have visited Cuba, that they, too, remember Solomon at the synagogue, calling the name Gonte. He must meet every bus from Michigan to see if he can find some of his family.”

A country of contrasts

In a country of sharp contrasts, Solomon is one of about 1,500 Jews; 1,100 reside in Havana and the remaining 400 are spread throughout the provinces among a population of 11 million people. Amidst a landscape of crumbling architecture and infrastructure, scarcity is the order of the day in Cuba. Cubans queue up for everything. Food is rationed to 1,500 calories a day. Children go to school hungry. While there is a 99% literacy rate, there are no jobs and few opportunities to move up or out of the country. Until recently, there were no private companies, with all economic enterprise run by the government. Beyond privately run “paladares” which cater to tourists, all restaurants are government owned. Medical care is free, but there are limited supplies and few doctors. In fact, doctors are Cuba’s fourth largest export, sent to other countries to practice and send money back to Cuba.

Cuba’s small Jewish presence today belies the bustling Jewish community that existed before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In those days, there were 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone. Three of those synagogues remain today – Adath Israel Orthodox Synagogue, the Sephardaic Center and the Conservative Beth Shalom Synagogue, which houses El Patronato Community Center, a pharmacy and a library. There is no rabbi living on the island and only one kosher butcher. Even so, Jewish community life in Cuba is remarkably organized and vibrant.

Havana’s renovated Patronato Synagogue and JCC houses a library, social hall, classroom, youth center, computer room and the community pharmacy.  Photo: Julian Voloj, JDC
Havana’s renovated Patronato Synagogue and JCC houses a library, social hall, classroom, youth center, computer room and the community pharmacy. Photo: Julian Voloj, JDC

A vibrant Jewish life

“The resurgence of the Jewish community in Cuba is a shining example of Jews reaching out to Jews, wherever in the world there is need,” explains Jewish Detroit’s own Penny Blumenstein, President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – (JDC). “As the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, the JDC has been an active presence in Cuba for more than twenty years, working as a lifeline to the community in partnership with Federations across our nation. With our continued support, Jewish teens prepare for bar and bat mitzvah through study programs, families gather weekly to share in Shabbat services and a communal dinner,  and rabbis from Latin America make regular visits to the island to teach, to celebrate holidays and to perform weddings.”

Although the U.S. government embargo forbids U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, the humanitarian focus of Federation’s missions have allowed Michigan travelers to bypass the restrictions on tourism. Federation’s trip was organized by the JDC and entailed a full schedule of religious activities, as well as the delivery of medications and supplies to restock the community pharmacy. Additionally, the Detroit group donated soccer equipment for the team that will compete in the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem in July.

“Our mission to Cuba was truly a unique opportunity,” stated Lowell Salesin, who co-chaired the mission along with Matthew Lester. “It is apparent that the life of our brothers and sisters in Cuba is enhanced in countless ways by their connection to Judaism. Despite their existence within a regressive society, Jewish life seems to prosper to the extent it does through their connection with the Jewish community. This mission was a tremendous success and confirmed for me the importance of our Jewish Federation’s campaign both here and abroad.”

Reflecting on the visit, Scott Kaufman observes, “To think that this was a Jewish community about to disappear from the map – with 95% of its population having fled the country following the revolution in 1959 – it’s remarkable to see Jewish Cuba’s renewal today. Since the JDC’s return in the early 90’s, the Jewish population has doubled in size. The Jewish community in Cuba is active, passionately pro-Israel, and organized to shape a vibrant and meaningful experience in their religious schools, youth and Birthright programs, senior activities and Shabbat services led by highly qualified volunteers.”

Sunday School at Patronato
More than 100 children and adults learn Jewish traditions in Sunday School classes at the Patronato Synagogue and Jewish Community Center in Havana. Photo: Julian Voloj, JDC

“Proud to be Cuban, proud to be Jewish, clearly the community has taken root again and is making a life. It’s hard to believe, but so gratifying to see that this resurgence – the kind of rebirth that we’ve seen in communities in Europe – is taking place in our hemisphere, just 90 miles from our coast. The Jewish community is a powerful affirmation of the work the JDC is doing in partnership with our own Federation. Our group was deeply moved – especially in attending a Havdalah service combined with a Yom Ha’zikaron celebration. The sanctuary in the community center was filled with music and song; as I looked around, I could feel that we making a palpable connection. There were smiles on our faces, and tears in our eyes.”