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The New Havana Club

Julian Voloj, PresentTense Group, October 10, 2009
2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and turned Cuba into a socialist state.

At the eve of the revolution, 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba-including Eastern European Jews, commonly nicknamed Polacos (Poles), and Sephardi Jews who had fled the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Thousands of Eastern European Jews had settled in Cuba for a short period en route to the United States, to circumvent the American immigration authorities' anti-Semitic Eastern European quota, beginning in 1924.

The vast majority of these Cuban Jews, along with their Christian compatriots, fled the revolution to Florida, where all they could do was hope for a speedy return to their home country. Jewish life in communist-and officially atheist-Cuba became virtually nonexistent. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba, without her socialist ally, had no choice but to relax religious regulations. Members of Cuba's communist party were no longer forbidden to belong to a religious community, and the Jews of Cuba turned to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for help in rebuilding.

Since then, Cuba has witnessed an exceptional renaissance of Jewish life. Eighteen years later, an estimated 1,500 Jews live in Cuba. They have established a dozen active synagogues (three in the capital Havana alone), Sunday schools, bar and bat mitzvah training sessions, summer camps, youth clubs, and Jewish dance troupes.

The locals have only one expression for this phenomenon: un milagro, a miracle.