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Cuban Jews’ Plight Sparks Drive to Help

"They had not been allowed to be Jewish openly."

by Andrea Adelson

January 2, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Tourist Cuba is a bit like a time-machine ride through a Cold War theme park. Vintage Detroit autos rumble past charming Havana hotels refurbished to their pre-revolutionary glory. Posters for featured movies at a film festival keep company with ones that blare slogans like, "La Revolucion Siempre," or the revolution always.

Yet, when Roe Gruber and her daughter took a Havana apartment for a month last summer, the Tustin residents were able to escape the tourist cocoon. They learned new skills, like coping with Third World shortages by offering bribes for tomatoes and theater tickets.

Along the way, they were warmly welcomed by an anemic population of 1,300 Jews, who after 40 years only recently have been permitted to resuscitate religious practices without risk of political stigma.

In a nation of 11 million, where a physician earns $25 a month and government-owned housing is left to decay, among the worst off are elderly Jews, most of them refugees from Nazi oppression and without surviving relatives for outside support. They scrape by in crumbling apartments on $3-a-month pensions and ration cards for food and clothing.

Such privations ignited a passion in Gruber, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "Any of those women could have been my grandma," she said.

Like Dina Nudelfunden, 78, who prizes the 1953 Coldspot refrigerator in her kitchen, equipped with a one-burner stove. She spends two hours each day commuting for a hot meal served at her Orthodox synagogue, one of five in Havana.

She was overjoyed when Gruber and her daughter, Daniella, delivered a sackful of groceries and $10. "You would have thought I gave her gold," Gruber said.

Or Eva Nissembaum, 78, who shares two cinderblock rooms with three brothers. One is Maximo, 69, a victim of childhood polio, who cannot leave the apartment because his wheelchair is broken.

Since her first venture to Cuba three years ago, Gruber, by trade a travel agent who specializes in exotic locations, has organized a tzedakah (charity) project that is unusual on several counts.

Aid for religious, humanitarian or educational purposes is permitted into Cuba for nonprofit groups that apply for a federally sanctioned license. Gruber established the Sephardic Friendship Committee, so-named assuming the origin of Cuba's Jews -- wrongly as it turned out, since many of Cuba's Jews immigrated from Ashkenazic countries.

Advertising lures fellow travelers who are each expected to schlep 20 pounds in donated food, clothing and medical supplies that Gruber collects. Some are also persuaded that they have acquired disabilities requiring the need of a wheelchair. Miraculously, they always leave Cuba cured and are forced to jettison their wheelchairs -- a precious commodity in a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.

After a 1998 papal visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro lifted the ban on organized religion imposed when he seized power in 1959. Soon after, details emerged about a quiet exodus to Israel of 400 Cuban Jews underway since 1995. Israel's Jewish Agency made a deal with Castro for silence, in return for obstacle-free emigration, the report said.

Before the revolution, Cuba's Jewish population was 15,000, supporting five synagogues, three Jewish elementary schools and a network of cultural, social and Zionist groups. The Balkan wars of 1910 had brought a steady stream of Jewish exiles from Turkey. Impoverished Polish and Romanian Jews arrived after World War I. And a third wave of immigrants fled Europe in the 1930s.

In Castro's Cuba, though, the tide of emigres reversed direction. Havana's largest synagogue fell into disrepair, its ceiling missing tiles and birds flying through broken windows.

Today, 150 younger, middle-class families flock to the repaired sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, which doubles as a Jewish Community Center and pharmacy, all known as the Patronato. In the absence of a rabbi, Dr. Jose Miller, a retired surgeon, is its leader.

A photo on its wall shows Miller posing with Castro, who attended a 1998 Chanukah party at Miller's invitation. Visiting rabbis perform conversions of the many non-Jewish spouses, giving the tropical Diaspora a multiethnic mix.

"They had not been allowed to be Jewish openly. Now, they are really excited about it," Gruber said. "It's not taken for granted."

Last June, she informally started a Cuba fund drive at her Conservative synagogue, Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel, and her daughter's school, Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah. Her goal was $3,600, enough to double the annual income for each of 30 elderly Jews.

"That's not what happened," she said. "It was amazing."

Gruber ended up with $6,000 and is now considering how to expand the committee's support beyond food staples to assist the elderly with home repairs. She returned to Cuba last month to meet with Miller, who plays a role in distributing charity.

Gruber and her 15-year-old daughter took a fourth-floor walk-up apartment while enrolled at the University of Havana in an intensive Spanish-language course. Gruber wanted to see the Jewish community from the inside.

At Havana's 400-bed Children's Hospital, she found quality medical care provided by well-educated staff, but a shortage of medicine and equipment. Dr. Sylvia Leone begged her for syringes. On the streets, women would approach Gruber, rubbing their forearms, a signal they were seeking soap.

Cuba is currency starved. After losing an estimated $5.8 billion a year in subsidies from its chief benefactor, the former Soviet Union, Cuba's economic plight grew worse last year because of the worldwide decline in tourism. Clothing rations for each citizen were cut from three articles to none this year. Desperate for dollars, the Cuban government is restoring portions of Havana to lure tourists and loosening rules on foreign charity efforts.

Several other United States-based groups also are intent on aiding Cuban Jews. The Berkeley-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission started as a Hadassah membership drive in 1994 and has returned 14 times since, said June Safran, its executive director. "I saw that I could do some good," she said.

The Cuban Jewish Relief Project of B'nai B'rith's Center for Public Policy in Philadelphia estimates it has shipped $3 million in supplies to Cuba over three years. At least six U.S. synagogues have Cuban projects.

However, some in the Cuban exile community are ambivalent about aid, viewing it as perpetuating a government they oppose.

"One thing we don't advocate is starving," said Dennis K. Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the oldest and largest exile community.

"Well-meaning individuals get pulled into the regime's orbit," Hays said. "With some effort you can get it into the hands of the people."

Hays warned that charitable groups should be suspicious of having to rely on an "official interlocutor."

"Our position is we support efforts that help Cuban people," Hays said. "If they are going down and working independently, we would be supportive."

Gruber returned to the United States with a fresh perspective. In the supermarket, the produce manager wondered why she remained rooted in front of a heap of tomatoes.

"It makes you realize there's an imbalance," she said. "We have too much, and they have too little."

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