As President Barack Obama was visiting Cuba Monday, there was already talk in Jewish blogs and publications that a Cuban Kashrut Committee may be in the planning stage, Kosher Today reported.
The reports say Cuban native attorney James Berenthal and Rabbi Eli Abadi, senior rabbi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York, are driving the initiative. Apparently, Berenthal has already drafted the necessary formal documents to establish a kashrut supervision outfit in the Republic of Cuba.
Cuba is eager to attract Jewish tourism. According to Tablet Magazine, looking to encourage Jewish tourists to give them a try, the Cuban government has styled Hotel Raquel in the old section of Hacana as a Jewish-themed boutique hotel. Hoping to attract Israelis and other Jewish tourists, Hotel Raquel is filled with symbolic Judaism: a painting of Rachel, Magen David chandeliers, a kosher-style restaurant. The hotel is located on the corner of a quiet street and nearly triangulates with two photogenic squares in the old city: Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja. “Many interesting sights and gastronomic and cultural sites are easy to reach on foot,” the hotel website promises.
The Hotel Raquel Restaurant is named Jardín del Edén, “only [one] in the country that offers Jew traditional food,” according to the website. Open since May of 2003, it offers “one of the most interesting gastronomic proposals in the city.” The website continues: “The offer combines classic and renovated recipes of the Jewish cuisine (almost unpublished in Cuba), in which stand out ‘Borscht’, the ‘Salad Israeli,’ the three types of Shashlick, and like accompaniments, flavorful Latkes or ‘Kugel of vegetables.'”
But the website The Jews of Cube, in its Q&A page, answers the Q: “Can I get kosher food in Cuba?” with a flat: “No. You can travel kosher-style or bring canned foods. If kosher-style, always check to make sure the beans are cooked vegetarian style. Be careful about soups and all other side dishes since Cubans like to use pork in just about everything.”
However, Jewish travelers may be able to mooch a dinner at a local synagogue on Shabbat. According to the same website, “depending on the synagogue, and the time of the year, you can find from a snack to full dinner. You will always be welcome to join the community dinner. Contact them in advance, however.”
According to Kosher Today, Berenthal plans to use the new agency, in addition to certifying kosher food, to provide much-needed employment for members of the local Jewish community. “We have to create a supervising organization to provide gainful employment and to return to the tradition of our community,” Berenthal says.
Berenthal wants the kosher certification to become the heart of a vibrant Jewish tourist industry. “There were over 7,000 Jewish tourists in 2015,” Berenthal says. “Many were Israelis who require kosher food and could not obtain it.”
According to Kosher Today, Berenthal graduated from a Havana yeshiva and recalls the celebrated opening of Havana’s El Patronato Synagogue in 1953 (President Batista attended the ceremony). Berenthal’s parents helped finance the construction.
Today he still has strong ties to the Jewish community in Havana, and the kashrut agency dream has been a 13 year-long project for him. “We have to create a supervising organization to provide gainful employment and to return to the tradition of our community,” Berenthal says. He says it will be the “kick starter” of Jewish rebirth on the island.