Leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba have sent an open letter today to their “brothers and sisters” in the U.S. expressing concern that reversing policy towards the island could have an impact on religious institutions, which have benefited from increased ties between the countries.
“The Jewish Community of Cuba, since its founding, has maintained ties of friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood with the Jewish people of the United States, even in moments when diplomatic relations between both countries did not exist,” states the letter. It is signed by 7 Jewish leaders, including Adela Dworkin, President of the Jewish Community of Cuba, as well as its Vice President, David Prinstein, leaders of Havana's Sephardic center and Jewish community coordinators in different parts of the country.
"North Americans played a substantial role in the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, and some of them have even visited our synagogues in Havana," states the letter. "There is a permanent desire to promote the continual development of this relationship and to strengthen the benefits that are starting to take shape, mainly for our people."
The pro-engagement lobbying group Engage Cuba are helping the Jewish leaders disseminate the letter in the U.S.
“Through an organic conversation they decided they wanted to write a letter to their counterparts here in the U.S. voicing their concern and explaining how increased travel has helped religious institutions in the Jewish community in Cuba," said Michael Maisel, Direcor of External Affairs for Engage Cuba.
The group worked with the Jewish leaders on translating the letter to make sure they were comfortable with it.
Maisel said they decided to spread the word and release the letter now because the U.S. government is currently in the phase of the regulatory writing; it's important to see how the Departments of State, Commerce, and Treasury write the regulations around travel and trade.
Since diplomatic relations were reestablished between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015, the amount of Americans traveling to the island has soared with renewed commercial air service.
Last month, President Donald Trump reversed some Obama-era executive orders by tightening restrictions on trade and travel with the communist island. The administration banned U.S. trade with Cuban entities linked to the military. Trump’s changes also eliminated the individual “people-to-people” category under which Americans could go to Cuba without booking a trip with a travel group. Details of the new policy are currently being written.
The Jewish community in Cuba is small and numbers around 1,000. The island was once a popular destination for Jews that fled after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, and later Europe and Russia after World War II. In the 1950s there were around 15,000 Jews living in Cuba, mostly in Havana. But after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the majority fled the nation. There are still three active synagogues in Havana.
Marcos Kerbel is the past president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami. He says Jewish people from around the world have traveled to Cuba throughout the years including Americans.
He told NBC News that strictly from a humanitarian, religious, and educational point of view, “it’s important in order for the community to continue its existence that they continue to have people visit, and that they receive individual help from tourists traveling to the island and from global Jewish institutions."
Kerbel said this is important in order for the community to continue their mission.
For example, he said, there is a pharmacy that not only helps Jewish members of the community, but also aids the larger non-Jewish community.
The letter states that “in the case of the Jewish communities, it would be excellent to continue deepening the relations, exchanges, and collaboration that have been offered to support the progress and development of the Jewish Community of Cuba. The programs and projects that are carried out in our synagogues also benefit the people in need in our community.”