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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Contact: Emily Grotta
UAHC Department of Communications

Reform Judaism Magazine Focuses on
Cuba, South Africa, and Poland:
Three Jewish Communities In Need of Renewal

The nations of Cuba, South Africa, and Poland, though thousands of miles away from one another, share one thing in common: Each has a small, struggling Jewish community, one severely impacted by the cataclysmic political upheavals of the 20th Century. In "Bittersweet Lands," the Focus section of its Winter 2001 issue, Reform Judaism magazine examines these communities firsthand, seeing how they have managed to survive in the midst of turmoil - whether it was the Nazi genocide, the fear of a bloody civil war at the end of apartheid, or Castro's communist revolution.

"When we travel abroad and meet remnant Jewish communities, we get the sense that we're meeting the last Jews of a particular place," says Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism and author of "Poland: In the Shadow of Memory," one of the articles in the Focus. "And yet, these are not dying communities, but emerging communities. The Jews who live there today are trying to plant the seeds for a Jewish future. By discussing the problems they face, I hope that we encourage American Jews to aid them, to nurture their efforts, to lend them support."

In "South Africa: In the Shadow of Apartheid," Reform Judaism literary editor Bonny V. Fetterman guides readers through South Africa, exploring both spectacular resorts and impoverished shantytowns. Between these poles, she encounters some of the country's 80,000 Jews, who are scattered among the cities of Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Pretoria. More than 50,000 Jews have emigrated since the 1970's, and many of the ones left behind live in poverty; all live without native-born rabbis. Communal strife is rampant, as Rabbi Charles Wallach, the head of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism, tells Fetterman; the Orthodox establishment, which represents over 80 percent of South African Jews, "makes believe that we [the Progressive Movement] don't exist." In spite of these odds, the Progressive congregations in Johannesburg are preparing several students for the rabbinate, who they hope will be educated at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the United States or the Leo Baeck Institute in London.

In April, 2001, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of the Community Synagogue of Port Washington, NY, accompanied twenty Reform teenagers on a humanitarian mission to Cuba. In "Cuba: In the Shadow of Castro," he recounts what he saw and what he learned. While in the 1950's, the Cuban Jewish community had between 11,000 and 14,000 members, "Today, only 1,200 Jews - some 500 households - remain in Cuba," Salkin writes. "Cuba's oldest synagogue, Shevet Achim in Havana, is in terrible disrepair; its floor is littered with weather-soiled sacred books and tallitot." And yet, almost miraculously, Jewish life continues. In spite of the fact that there are no rabbis, "worship services are well-attended and include many young people who have only recently discovered their Jewish ancestry," Salkin writes. Castro himself visits Jewish community celebrations - and sometimes even half-seriously claims Jewish ancestry - yet anti-Zionist and anti-Israel propaganda is rampant. Jews in Cuba have had to stake out a kind of middle ground in order to survive; but they have done an excellent job, for the community has survived with strength.

For eleven years, Krakow has hosted a Jewish Culture Festival, and a $75 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews is planned in Warsaw. But these projects are "based on the belief, shared by many Jews, that Jewish life in Poland will soon come to an end," Aron Hirt-Manheimer writes. "Many Jews think of Poland as a terminal patient with orders not to resuscitate." And yet, since the fall of Communism, many Poles who have discovered they have partly Jewish ancestry are looking to rediscover their Judaism. "Pogroms and socialism pushed many surviving Polish Jews underground. But now, they are out. Many are intermarried, but they are coming back, and they need a helping hand from the United States and Israel," Hirt-Manheimer says. An emblem of the return of Judaism in Poland is Beit Warsawa, Warsaw's liberal synagogue. Currently, it draws 65 to 70 people for its monthly Oneg Shabbat, and, last fall, it brought Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper to Poland to conduct High Holiday services.

"We have to stop thinking of Poland as a Jewish cemetery," Hirt-Manheimer says. "Even if there are only a few people determined to carry the flame forward, who believe that miracles happen to Jews, we must help them. If Israel could come back after 2,000 years, the same can happen to any Jewish community."

This and other articles can be read online at

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Reform Judaism magazine is published quarterly by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of the Reform Movement in North America. The UAHC represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 congregations in the United States and Canada, and offers its members programs including music and book publishing, youth camps, adult education programs, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.


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