Jewish Havana: Explore Culture with Our Classic Car Tour

From its humble beginnings in the 19th century to the present day, our tour will take you on a journey to explore the most iconic and meaningful places of the Jewish community in the Cuban capital.

The Birth of a Community

In the late 19th century, with the American intervention in Cuba, the first Hebrew organizations began to emerge in Havana. Jews from the United States, Turkey, and Morocco established themselves as merchants, marking the beginnings of a community that would expand with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially from Poland, Russia, and Lithuania.

David Bliss: Unifier of the Community

One of the most notable figures for the development of the Jewish community or “yichuv” of the time was David Bliss, a powerful businessman who led the Jewish Center for many years. Bliss, upon his arrival in Cuba, unified the scattered and disorganized community. He created the Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa and established the United Hebrew Congregation. The congregation mourned his death for three days in 1942 and hailed him as “the grandfather of the Cuban yichuv.”

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jews arrived in Cuba, but the majority did not settle permanently; instead, after the war, they returned to their countries or migrated to the United States. By 1945, Havana’s “yichuv” had 25 thousand members. The community attained significant economic power, with some considering themselves bourgeois and prestigious in the country, while others, particularly the younger generation, joined the struggles for social and political change. In the 1950s, the Jewish community had established itself well, with four schools, buildings in the Vedado district, a Youth Club, and even a Federation of the International Zionist Women’s Organization.

The Current Jewish Community in Cuba

With the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the number of Jews in Cuba significantly decreased due to new nationalization laws, with almost 80% emigrating, mostly to the United States. However, in the 1990s, a new resurgence began for Jews in Cuba. Social and religious activities experienced an increase, and the community established spaces to promote Jewish culture. Fortunately, the Jewish community in Cuba never suffered from the harsh anti-Semitism seen in many other countries. People considered them hardworking and dedicated individuals with certain “strange” customs to Western culture.

Today, the community enjoys freedom of worship and maintains its relations with the Cuban government. Additionally, among its main facilities and temples are the Adath Israel Hebrew Synagogue in Old Havana, the Sephardic Hebrew Center, and the Great Bet Shalom Synagogue in Vedado.

Emblematic Destinations of the Jewish Tour in Havana

The Jewish tour begins with pick-up at the location specified by the client. From there, you’ll have 6 hours to explore Jewish culture in Havana. It’s important to note that each tour is personalized and modified depending on the specific requirements of each client. Below are some recommended places to visit during your Jewish tour:

Sefardic Hebrew Center

Our first stop is the Sephardic Hebrew Center, also known as the Sefaradi Center of Cuba. It’s a Jewish religious building consisting of a synagogue located in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The presence of Sephardic Jews dates back to the discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus, as many Jewish converts, like Luis de Torres, arrived in Cuba. During the colonial period, the Spanish authorities prohibited Jews from entering the colonies, prompting Spanish Jews to organize secret communities to evade the horrors of the Inquisition. In 1954, the community purchased land in a modern area of the city and hired one of the most prominent architects of the time, Jaime Benavent, to design the current building that now houses the Sephardic Hebrew Center. This temple, belonging to the conservative movement, offers religious services for Kabalat Shabat and Shajarit.

Bet Shalom Synagogue

Another important stop is the beautiful Bet Shalom Synagogue, the largest Jewish synagogue in Cuba, built-in 1953 in Havana. It has special architectural value, with a staircase leading to the main entrance, metaphorically resolving the Talmudic precept that the synagogue must occupy the highest place in the city. The building, with its elevated windows, faces east so that Jews can direct their prayers toward the promised land, Jerusalem. Additionally, the synagogue has a community library with over 13 thousand titles on Jewish thought, history, and life, including books in Yiddish. As a curious fact, the famous American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, president of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to peace and Holocaust commemoration, and his wife Kate Capshaw, visited the Bet Shalom Synagogue.

First Jewish Cemetery of Havana

As we enter this cemetery, we can’t help but be delighted by the beauty of a culture full of its symbolism. Here, we find common rock tombs on the tombstones as a symbol of eternity. The Star of David cannot be missing, symbolizing peace and balance, nor can the menorah, considered the Hebrew national symbol, a seven-armed candelabrum or oil lamp representing God’s light extending to humanity through the shining flame. The United Hebrew Congregation, the first Jewish association on the island, purchased the land for building this cemetery, the first in the country, in 1906. They often recite The Kel Maleh Rachamim, the Prayer of Mercy, in the Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa, as it is essential in Hebrew funerals. Four years later, in 1910, the cemetery opened its doors and continues to operate to this day.

Hotel Raquel: A Cultural Oasis

Another important place for Jewish culture in Cuba is the Hotel Raquel, named in honor of the matriarch of the Jewish people, Rachel. The biblical name and some of its spaces evoke Hebrew culture present in various details of the decoration. The hotel’s restaurant, “Garden of Eden,” offers dishes made from traditional Jewish recipes, making it unique in its specialty in the country. The Hotel Raquel has the lobby bar Lejaim, a Hebrew word referring to a toast to life. Elements of their traditions such as the Star of David and the Menorah or sacred seven-armed candelabrum distinguish the decoration of this Garden of Eden, where the color blue, thematic of Hebrew culture, predominates.

Apart from the designation of the installation itself, each of its spaces has a biblical name. For example, the 11 rooms on the first floor are named: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Joseph, Benjamin, Reuben, Jeremiah, Elijah, Nehemiah, and David. Going up the stairs, we find a second floor full of rooms named after women: Esther, Rebecca, Sarah, Leah, Ruth, Miriam, Tamar, Zipporah, Elizabeth, and Hannah. The Holy Land is represented on the third floor with the names of Galilee, Sinai, and Jordan.

Expand Your Experience with a Tour of Havana’s Attractions

If you want to complement your experience, you can add a tour of the different attractions of Havana, such as the historic center, the Capitol, the Revolution Square, the Malecón, and many more. Our expert guides will take you to discover the charms of this vibrant city, combining Jewish history with the most outstanding points of interest in Havana. Enjoy a complete journey that will immerse you in the fascinating history and vibrant culture of Cuba. Book your Jewish tour in a classic car now and uniquely discover the essence of Havana!

If you found this content helpful, we invite you to continue exploring other articles about Cuba in the following links:

Cuban Cigars: Discover Its Fascinating Facts

Top 5 authentic Cuban foods you must try on your tour of Havana

Hemingway in Cuba: 8 Facts About Hemingway’s Time in Cuba

Visiting Havana: 8 Compelling Reasons to Include it in Your Next Vacation

Things to Do in Varadero: The 8 Best-Rated Tourist Attractions

Why a Private Transfer in an American Classic Car is the Best Way to Travel in Havana

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See the overwhelming reaction from the press, by downloading our free pressbook. Special thanks to Moshe Gilad of the @haaretzcom for highlighting this forgotten but important story in the Galeria section of the newspaper and available to download on WJT.

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