HAVANA — The Shabbat tasted just a little bit better for Senora Rebeca Meshulam and her family.

The kosher chickens delivered to her doorstep by Lubavitch rabbis earlier this month brought a taste of the old world to the Meshulams' Shabbat table in the Havana neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado.

"It's not very often that we are able to get kosher poultry," said Senora Meshulam, 53, whose husband, Alberto, is a neurologist and a Jewish community leader here.

Last month, the Chabad Friends of Cuban Jewry sent two rabbis here as part of its ongoing project to provide religious and humanitarian services to the Jews living under one of the world's last remaining communist regimes.

Pairs of Lubavitch rabbis and rabbinical students make more than a dozen visits a year to help the island's Jews celebrate Jewish holidays, to deliver humanitarian aid, and to run the wildly- successful Jewish summer camp held each July in a Havana city park.

This time, the arrivals, Rabbis Yechiel Chanzin and Yehuda Leib Cohen, were also trained shochtim, or ritual slaughterers.

Prior to the visit, Chabad-Lubavitch representatives persuaded Cuban officials to set aside 300 chickens, a scarce commodity on the island, for the Jewish community. The chickens were then paid for by Canadian businessmen.

Under a hot and balmy Caribbean sky, the visitors honed their sharp blades and recited the benedictions for the "shechita" ritual, an integral part of the Jewish dietary code.

The result: Three hundred happy Jewish families who could for the first time in years eat kosher chicken.


During the last five years, Chabad-Lubavitch volunteers have delivered some seven tons of basic food staples like oil, flour and pastas; 3,500 bars of soap; 1,800 packages of laundry detergent; 450 pairs of shoes, as well as medicine, clothes, treats for children, canned foods and candles. This last commodity came in handy when Cubans experienced frequent interruptions of their electric service.

The aid program operates out of Adath Israel, one of three synagogues still functioning in Havana. Adath Israel, with its surprisingly modern-looking structure, is the only synagogue where morning and afternoon services are held daily.

Local Jewish teenagers are recruited to divide the supplies into individual packages that are then distributed among community members.

The marriage between physical and spiritual endeavors has long been a mark of Lubavitch work, and is evident in abundance here. The rabbis combine relief efforts with pastoral counseling and an enthusiastic promotion of Jewish life.

"Lubavitch provides us with both material and spiritual support," Senora Rebeca Meshulam said, "but we need the latter even more than the former."

"We visit individual Jews in their homes," said Rabbi Shimon Eisenbach of Chabad Friends of Cuban Jewry. "We don't just drop off supplies outside the synagogue."

One endeavor that requires physical action and spiritual commitment is the Brit Milah, or ritual circumcision according to Jewish law. Since 1991, Lubavitch volunteers have conducted 20 circumcisions of Jewish children and adults, flying in "Mohelim," ritual circumcisors, from abroad.


Though just 90 miles distant from the Jewish urban sprawl in South Florida, Cuba's Jews remain isolated since the 1959 revolution. Most of the Jews who lived here fled after the Communists came to power and nationalized their shops, factories and plantations.

The island's Jewish population has dwindled from an estimated 15,000 in 1959 to less than 1,500 souls today.

"The first ones who ran away after the revolution were the Jewish leaders," said Meshulam. "We were left stranded and the community was in very bad shape."

When Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, officially allowed free religious practice here, in 1991, the act spawned a free-for-all among foreign religious groups eager to promote religion on the island.

Since then, Jewish life here has also slowly begun to come back.

Lubavitch rabbis are dispatched primarily from South and Central American countries, owing to the U.S. government travel restrictions.

Chabad's success in fostering Jewish life here has created a paradox: As Cuba's Jews come into contact with Judaism, more and more are leaving to established Jewish communities in South America, the United States and Israel.

Meshulam's own offspring are a good example. Her 23-year-old son is studying at the Lubavitch rabbinical academy in Buenos Aires, and her 33-year-old daughter just immigrated to Israel.

Havana's 100 or so Jewish children eagerly anticipate Lubavitch's visits here.

"You know," said Meshulam, "Children call my house and ask, 'When are the Lubavitchers coming?'"