During my 12/12-12/20/14 trip to Havana, Cuba, we visited Beth Shalom Temple not far from where we stayed at Hotel Nacional in the Vedado neighborhood. Beth Shalom was built in 1953 to serve what once was 15,000 Jews in Cuba. The Temple now serves 800 congregants in a fully restored moderne structure in a residential area of Havana. We visited the Temple the day following the historic opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, and release from jail of Alan Gross on the first day of Hanukah (Wednesday, December 16).
When we first visited the Temple on Thursday morning, around 11am, there was Israeli dancing (with a Cuban twist) going on in the gym/recreation center. One of the dancers invited us upstairs to the sanctuary where she explained that the Castro Revolution in 1959 outlawed religion, so everyone who chose to practice their religion did so underground at their homes privately. When the Pope visited in 1989, Fidel then allowed the people to practice religion openly, but by that time the synagogue had already been closed for 30 years.
After 30 years, the Temple had fallen into disrepair, so it was US, Canadian and Israeli contributions that restored the Temple (see photos). At the time of its construction, the Jewish Community in Havana was relatively affluent (traders and bankers) as evidenced by the size and decoration of the Temple. With the Revolution, all who could afford to leave the island did, so those Jews remaining could not afford to do so. It was a very humbling and emotional experience to realize that the Jews remaining in Cuba maintained our religion for 30 years underground with what must have been no outside contact, yet now enjoy Israeli dancing in what once was their conservative, currently reform synagogue.
Despite their freedom to practice and embrace Judaism, there are no bagels in Cuba (not to mention challah and bialys), and a Rabbi visits just once every 3 months from Argentina. Apparently, there are no Rabbis in Cuba either, and the Temple cannot afford one more often.
Jeff Weinstein, our Temple president, visited Cuba in December, 2014. The following are his comments and his photos...
This photo I took while walking alone in the Old City of Havana. I believe it to be Havana's oldest synagogue, Chevet Achim, founded in 1914 but no longer in operation.