A prominent member of the Cuban Jewish community says Havana Jews are eager for news from the outside world, particularly the latest goings-on in Israel and the global Jewish community.

“We live in a bubble – we only know what the state-sponsored media wants us to know,” says Dr. Mayra Levy, a professor of pharmacology at Havana’s University of Medical Sciences and the president of Havana’s Sephardic synagogue, the largest of Cuba’s three Jewish congregations.

The busy doorway to one of Cuba's main synagogues (photo Courtesy: Richard Smith, www.jewishcuba.org)

Levy spoke to the Times of Israel during a recent visit to Washington, where she represented the 1500-member Cuban Jewish community at the annual American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Global Forum.

When asked what her main message from the Cuban community to the global gathering of Jewish emissaries was, Levy said: “I want them to know that we exist.”

“It’s not just money that we need. We want to be connected to the Jewish world and Israel, to meet face-to-face with Jews who visit us to share their knowledge and make us feel a part of the global community.” Levy added that there is great local interest in returning to Jewish roots, evidenced by the 167 Jewish children enrolled in Sunday school.

More than 150 Cuban Jewish children attend Sunday school (photo credit: Courtesy Richard Smith, jewishcuba.org)

Cuban Jews feel “ignored” by those who managed to flee the communist nation and now live predominantly in South Florida, she said. “We receive a lot of attention from groups like the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Cuba Connection, and B’nai Brith, but are disappointed that those who share our heritage and to whom we can relate the most are not involved.”

At its height, before the arrival of Fidel Castro in 1959, the Cuban Jewish community peaked at around 15,000 members, many of whom were successful business leaders and professionals.

We want to be connected to the Jewish world and Israel, to meet face-to-face with Jews who visit us to share their knowledge and make us feel a part of the global community

But the number of Jews in the past five decades has decreased ten-fold under the communist regime as many members of the community have fled to the US, Israel, and elsewhere.

Paradoxically, anti-Semitism has never been a problem on the island, despite the regime’s close ties with enemies of Israel like Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.  Dina Siegel Vann, Director of the AJC Latino and Latin American Institute, said both Castros [Fidel and Raul] have treated the Jewish community with respect “as long as they are not involved in Israel-related activity.”

Levy agreed, saying she’d “never encountered a single anti-Semitic incident on the streets of Havana.” Nevertheless, she says the local community must ask permission from the government to do almost anything, like purchase a van or build an additional wing to a synagogue.

Three years ago, Alan Gross, a Jewish American social worker and international development professional, was arrested for illegally bringing satellite phones and computer equipment into Cuba. Local authorities accuse the 63 year-old aid worker and father of two of being a US spy.

Levy said she is not aware of the details of Gross’s case.

It is widely believed that the Cuban government is using the Washington, DC area resident as a bargaining chip to press the US government to release the so-called Cuban Five, agents arrested nearly 15 years ago who were convicted for spying on behalf of Castro’s regime.

Protesters demand the release of Alan Gross (photo credit: Courtesy Jewish Community Relations Council of Washington)

Earlier this month, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official hinted during a CNN interview that Cuba might be willing to consider a deal involving Gross and the Cuban Five. But US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Newland rejected any notion of a swap, saying, “There is no equivalence between these situations.”

The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong, and it’s an affront to human decency’ – US State Dept spokesperson

“On the one hand, you have convicted spies in the United States, and on the other hand, you have an assistance worker who should never have been locked up in the first place. So we are not contemplating any release of the Cuban Five, and we are not contemplating any trade…The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable, it is wrong, and it’s an affront to human decency. And the Cuban government needs to do the right thing,” said Nuland.

Gross is said to be being held in a Cuban hospital and petitioning his captors to be allowed to visit his 90 year-old mother in Texas, who is dying of cancer.