Jewish History of Camagüey, Cuba


Jewish cemetery of Camagüey, Cuba
The Jewish cemetery of Camagüey, Cuba


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Opinion & Society

Annals of a Jewish Traveler:
Camagüey, Cuba

by Dr. Jay Levinson

In many respects Camagüey is a forgotten town in the Cuban countryside some 500 km east of Havana. There is little to attract a tourist except a quaint style of life typified by tricycle-taxis and vintage American cars of the 1950s. In many ways the town is typical of Jewish Cuba outside Havana.

During the early 1920's Sephardic immigrants from Turkey came to Camagüey seeking employment. In 1923 they founded a Camagüey section of Chevet Ahim, the Sephardic shul in Havana.

Ashkenazim came to the city, and in 1925 they set up their own organization with the help of the Jewish Committee for Cuba, an American-sponsored operation with offices in Havana. The organization in Camagüey was taken over by anti-religious Bundists, the Americans withdrew support, and immediately after Rosh HaShanah offices were closed.

By 1927 there was a thriving Jewish community in the city. There were an estimated one hundred Sephardic families resident in Camagüey, divided into two separate communities. On 22 December 1927 a meeting was held in a private residence on Calle San Fernando No. 133. The two factions joined together, and the Camagüey Union Israelita Tiferet Israel was founded. A synagogue was opened at Calle San Fernando No. 137 1/2. The following year Nissim Maya (1897-1985) moved from Havana to Camagüey and assumed duties as rabbi of Tiferet Israel, shochet, and mohel.

The Jews of the city were never particularly religious. On the Sabbath some stores were closed, most were not. But the Jews of Camagüey were closely knit, often functioning as one large extended family (particularly in the Sephardic community where marriage with relatives was not infrequent). At least one storeowner reported that all of his clients were Jews, not because of anti-Semitism, but because of sociological patterns

The Ashkenazi community grew with the influx of the influx of World War II refugees. The Centro Hebreo de Camagüey, a Yiddish speaking organization, was established on 29 April 1942. Slowly, the community members left the city. By the end of World War II the Ashkenazi community no longer existed.

Purchasing area for some one hundred graves from an existing graveyard was the first step in starting the Jewish cemetery. The earliest known grave in the cemetery is that of Moises Israel, who died on 12 November 1924. That graveyard is the only functioning remnant of pre-Revolutionary Camagüey.

Today the old synagogue building has been converted into several apartments, but a Magen David is still to be seen over the doorway of what became the main entrance. After the Revolution the dwindling community closed the shul and transferred the building to government control.

In 1998 a new synagogue was opened at Andrés Sánchez No. 365 e/ Capdevila y Joaquín Agüero, Reparto la Vigía; the congregation now has 27 member families (2002). The synagogue is not Orthodox, and there are services only on Shabbos and Yom Tov. The community head, David Pernas (grandson of the community's first president in the 1920s), is very hospitable in welcoming Orthodox visitors. He served a very nice meal of Pesach leftovers - matzoh and jarred gefilte fish - to this hungry traveler.

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