The Jewish Museum and Cultural Center at Ahavas Sholom (formerly known as The Jewish Museum of New Jersey) was founded in 2003 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation in the State of New Jersey. The Museum is located on 145 Broadway, in the neighborhood that at the turn of the 20th century was predominately Italian. Story has it, Jewish merchants in the area lived above their stores, and built the synagogue for worship. New Jersey, has the fourth largest Jewish population in the country and can trace its Jewish roots to the 17th century. Prior to the establishment of the Jewish Museum there was no permanent state-wide museum to preserve and exhibit the Jewish history. Ahavas Sholom, a state and national landmark and the oldest continually active synagogue in Newark.
Exhibiting at the Museum is a series of photos entitled, “The Jews of Cuba:”,” featuring Brooklyn native Debbie Rosenfeld and West Orange based photographer Heidi Sussman. Debbie Rosenfeld, travelled to Cuba in 2008 as part of a cultural exchange mission organized by her synagogue in Columbus Ohio. In Cuba, she encountered a vibrant community of Cuban Jews. She was invited into their homes to take a series of photographs that reflect the day to day conditions of their lives as well as the rituals and sacred objects that define and distinguish them from their non-Jewish neighbors. Prior to coming to the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, these photographs were displayed at the Ann Frank Center in New York City. Her work has also appeared at several galleries and museum spaces in Columbus Ohio and its environs.
Heidi Sussman studied photography at Emerson College in Boston and continued her post-graduate studies at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, Mexico. She travelled to Cuba in October 2012 as part of a humanitarian mission from Temple Sharey Tefilo in South Orange, NJ. Her photographs in the present exhibit are focused on the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries of Havana, reflecting the themes of remembrance and survival. In addition to her work as a photographer Ms. Sussman works in several media, including painting and photo encaustics. Prior to exhibiting at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, her work has been exhibited at several galleries including the Atrium Art Gallery in the Performing Arts Center of Sussex County Community College, the Brennan Gallery in Jersey City, and the Maplewood 1978 Arts Center.
A lecture by Dr. Jonathan Golden, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director for the Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict at Drew University, gave an interesting history and narrative ”The Jews of Cuba”. Jewish Cubans, Cuban Jews, or Cubans of Jewish heritage, have lived on the island of Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace Jewish ancestry to Marranos who fled the Spanish Inquisition, though few of these practice Judaism today. Marranos publicly adopted Catholicism, but many continued to practice Judaism secretly. These “pretenders” of Catholicism were called los Marranos, which referred to the pork they would eat in public for show their support of Catholicism. Many Marranos headed for the “New World” where they established their communities, complete with synagogues. There was significant Jewish immigration to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century.
Like others, many Jews left Cuba for the United States after the coming of Fidel Castro, in 1959 and until 1961, over 90% of these Jews fled the country and today there is a large community in South Florida, and New York and New Jersey. In modern Cuba there are many communities of Middle Eastern descent, including Jewish and Lebanese populations. Communist Cuba maintained normal relations with Israel until the 1967 War when its foreign policy became firmly anti-Zionist. It joined the Third World, in 1973, in severing diplomatic ties but Aliyah which began at the time of the creation of the state of Israel and continued after the Communist Revolution did not end when the political relationship changed. In fact, there has been an increase in Aliyah since the renewal of religious life after 1991.
Although the Castro led revolution was not directed against Jews, it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily middle class private business oriented. The reason for the flight was not anti-Semitism, but the economic shift from capitalism to communism. The majority of those who remained were either firm believers in the communist system that frowned on religious practice, were intermarried with strong non-Jewish family attachments, or were too poor to leave.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated and withdrew their economic partnership with Cuba in 1989, the economy took a severe turn downward and common everyday items necessary for basic survival were in short supply. In desperation for spiritual support, people began turning to the various religious institutions for comfort and hope. The government, recognizing the needs of the people, changed the law that forbade “Believers” in any religious persuasion to be members of the party. This change allowed people to practice religion while keeping top echelon jobs. The previous law also kept children of “Believers from attending the best schools and made it difficult for these people to gain admission to the University, thereby limiting job opportunities and economic advancement. The old law did, however, protect against national, religious or racial hate and that has not changed. The new law gave Jews, along with all Cubans, freedom to worship, and the opportunity to receive ritual items and kosher holiday food from abroad. In addition, the distribution of kosher beef that had been in effect since the Revolution for registered members of the various synagogue communities continued as the government recognized that these people needed beef rather than the pork available in the ration stores.
The Cuban Coordinating Commission, the official governmental unit for the Jewish Community, recognized 1,201 persons as Jewish in 2001 for the purpose of distributing Passover food. In February 2007, The New York Times estimated that there are about 1,500 known Jews living in Cuba, most of them (about 1,100) living in Havana. They also state that Cuba has only one kosher butcher shop on the entire island and not a single rabbi, until recently. They now have a Rabbi that is based in one of the Synagogues in Havana and often encourages visiting Jews to give Tzedakah for the Jewish Cubans and for Israel. The article adds, “This small Jewish presence [in 2007] is in stark contrast to the bustling 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.” Adath Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue in Cuba. On December 2006, the Cuban Jewish community celebrated its 100th anniversary.
There are three synagogues in Havana with regular minyanim each Shabbat and on holidays at Conservative Ashkenazic and Sefardic synagogues and daily minyanim at the Orthodox shul. Synagoga Beth Shalom, at the Patronato in the Vedado Section, was built in the 1950s. Now, it is the cultural and religious center of Havana’s Jewish life The Sephardic community continues to practice its rituals at Centro Sefardi, a building that was constructed in Vedado area in the 1950 when its community had mostly moved from Habana Vieja where its first synagogue, Shevet Achim, remained with a small minyan until that old building was deemed structurally unsound. Today, there are efforts afoot to turn that building into a museum, but this still only a dream. This synagogue received regular support from Chabad Organization in Toronto, Panama, and Peru and Florida for many years.
The photos are moving, emotional as they depicted the stories of Cuban Jews many were merchant, producing items to be sold to tourist. The embargo has impacted the poor of Cuba, including Jews, as a result jewish institutions from United States and Canada began shipping supplies such as toiletries, medical supplies and other household items back to Cuba. The Cuban Jew also share the supplies with other poor Cubans on the island. Other important images capture were the synagogues and cemetery. There are several active small communities across the island. Each one has a character of its own and each is happy to receive visitors. They are located in Cienfuegos, Caibarien, Santa Clara, Sancti Spritus, Manzanillo, Campechuela, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantanamo.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the following programs will be offered:
Sunday June 1st – Film Screening and Discussion -”Adio Kerida”-chronicling Anthropologist Ruth Behar’s search for her Sephardic roots in Cuba.
Sunday, June 8th – Closing reception with Ladino poetry, music and dance.
Suggested donation is $10 or contribution of personal hygiene supplies for women or men to be delivered to Cuba. For more information about the exhibition or the programs, see our website www.jewishmuseumnj.org. To RSVP for the opening reception, contact Max Herman at (973) 698-8489.