First Cuban Delegation to Maccabiah Reflects Revival of Tiny Jewish Community

With 44 athletes at the Maccabiah - the island's first official delegation ever - it's clear that Cuba's tiny Jewish community is coming back to life.

When the members of the Cuban delegation march on to the pitch in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium for the 19th Maccabiah’s opening ceremony, they will be making Jewish sporting history. Although individual Cuban athletes have participated in the Maccabiah before, this is the first time that an official delegation from the communist island south of Florida has come to Israel to take part in the games.

If all goes according to plan, the 44 athletes, as well as their coaches and chaperones, will all be sporting spiffy new uniforms in the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag – with the letters PRT sewn onto their sleeves. The letters, however, do not denote any sacred Cuban motto or historic rallying cry: they are the initials of Preston Robert Tisch, the late Jewish billionaire philanthropist who lived his life far away in New York.

His son, Steve Tisch, an Oscar-winning film producer and co-owner of the New York Giants American football team, decided to inscribe the initials on the uniforms as a “personal footnote” to commemorate his late father. He agreed to pay for the design and manufacture of the uniforms during a recent tour of Havana after a 72-year-old leader of the Jewish community convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

The “amazingly charismatic dynamic and passionate” Adela Dworin, as Tisch describes her, who serves as vice president of the El Patronato center at the Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana, was well prepared for her meeting with Tisch. “She knew of my involvement in sports and she knew that I was in the movie business, and that I would be drawn to the fact that this is a great story to tell. I told her I’d be honored,” Tisch recalls.

Tisch – whose credits include the critically acclaimed Forrest Gump and who is often described as “the only man in the world with both an Oscar and a Super Bowl ring” – is a scion of the famous New York family that built and owns the multibillion dollar Fortune 500 Loews Corporation. The Tisch family is renowned for its philanthropy, both Jewish and general, financing, among many other things, the popular Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Steve’s cousin, James Tisch, has served as chairman of the UJA and of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and currently chairs the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

But you don’t have to be a billionaire to pitch in and Tisch isn’t even the only one paying for Cuban uniforms. Mark Torriero, for example, a 31-year-old wrestler who lives in Brooklyn – who isn’t Cuban and isn’t Jewish – conducted his own private fundraising drive on the Internet to buy uniforms for the Cuban softball team as part of drive to help “athletes of faith.”

The historic participation of the Cuban athletes – including 13 dancers, who will dance in the Karmiel festival – are reflective of the renaissance that the entire Cuban Jewish community has been enjoying in recent years, after years of impoverishment. The revival is partly the result of the gradual liberalization of Cuban life, including religious freedom, and partly due to the quirky rules and regulations governing the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Although American citizens are banned from travelling to Cuba as regular tourists, the U.S. Treasury Department grants exemptions to groups and individuals on “religious” or “humanitarian” grounds. This has created a booming industry of organized tours conducted by scores of Jewish Federations in the U.S. that travel to Cuba “for religious purposes” to help the struggling Jewish community. The delegations always bring suitcases full of medicines that are in short supply in Cuba, as they come to enjoy high-end “study tours” of the best the island has to offer.

Together with the support of bodies such as the Joint Distribution Committee, the influx of wealthy, well-meaning American Jews has rejuvenated Jewish institutions. In recent years the community has rebuilt synagogues, launched community centers, opened Jewish schools, and found the means to finance ambitious projects – such as sending a large delegation, for the first time, to the Maccabiah.

Once a bustling community numbering more than 15,000 people, most Cuban Jews fled the island following the 1959 communist revolution. Today only 1,500 Jews live in Cuba, mostly in Havana, but also in small communities in several other towns.

Rafael and Roxana Gonzales, for example, are a brother and sister archery duo from the tiny Jewish community – 26 members – of the picturesque oceanside town of Cienfuegos. “I was an archer for six years until I finished high school,” the 24-year-old Rafa Gonzales says, “but it’s been hard to train since then.”

So Maccabi World Union brought the archers to Israel two weeks in advance, putting them up at Maccabiah Village and sending them to train at the Rishon Lezion Archery Club. Rafael says he is amazed by the encouragement and help that he and his sister have received from fellow athletes and Israeli hosts since their arrival.

I mistakenly assume, therefore, that this is their first visit to Israel, but it turns out that this is his second, and his sister’s third. Which is as it should be for members of a community that has been so warmly embraced by Jewish benefactors worldwide, and whose rebirth will be proudly paraded by Maccabiah athletes.

Roberto Popowski
Roberto Popowski
Bloomberg