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Cuba's Jews, Catholics Have Very Different Takes On The U.S. Thaw

A member of the activist group Women in White is arrested during a demonstration to commemorate Human Rights Day in downtown Havana, on Dec. 10. Members of the opposition movement say they feel betrayed by the U.S. decision to restore ties with Cuba's communist regime. (AFP/Getty Images)

In Havana, two religious communities are celebrating the holiday season but have taken very different approaches to the news that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are warming.

For Jews who belong to Temple Beth Shalom in Havana, their numbers may be small, but size doesn't matter.

On Sunday night, a couple hundred people filled the temple's sanctuary to light six Hanukkah candles, watch teens put on a play, and clap to a group of toddlers dancing to the holiday classic "Eight Little Candles," sung in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language.

Temple members say they are thrilled that both President Obama and President Raul Castro agreed to normalize relations between the two countries.

And, says David Prinstein Senorans, the temple's vice president, the release of Alan Gross adds to the holiday's celebration. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing in banned satellite and Internet equipment. Access to the Internet is closely controlled on the island.

"It seems as if there was another Hanukkah miracle," says Prinstein, who visited Gross many times during the five years he was imprisoned in a Cuban military hospital.

Adela Dworin, president of the temple, says the Jewish community was never involved in importing sophisticated equipment.

"It would have been stupid for such a small group to take part in illegal acts," she says.

Dworin says she and the community helped Gross because he was a fellow Jew. The temple has a few antiquated computers, and that's all it needs, Dworin says.

"We can get on the Internet here. It's slow but we get by with what we have," she says.

While the Jews celebrated the news of improved relations, across town the mood was very different outside St. Rita's Catholic Church. That's where the dissident group Women in White meets every Sunday after morning Mass.

Lazara Barbara Serdina Recalde says the group feels betrayed by Obama, saying he has just given the authoritarian Cuban regime much needed oxygen.

"It just strengthens the regime so they can repress us more," she says.

After Mass, the group of 70 women, all dressed in white and carrying a plastic pink gladiolus, walked silently down a main thoroughfare of Havana. At the end they stood in front of the large white church, chanting, "Freedom, freedom."

They say no changes will come to Cuba as long as Raul Castro is in power and that he can't be trusted. According to the White House, Castro was to release 53 political prisoners from Cuban jails. The women and other human rights activists say none have been released so far.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Havana this week, two religious communities are celebrating the holiday season, but they are reacting differently to news of warming relations between the United States and Cuba. Cuba's tiny Jewish community has embraced the news, especially with the release of contractor Alan Gross, but as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, some Catholic worshippers are upset with President Obama's overtures to Cuba's communist government.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Feliz Hanukkah.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Their numbers may be small, but for members of Temple Beth Shalom in Havana, size doesn't matter.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #1: (Singing in foreign language).

KAHN: On Sunday night, a couple hundred people filled the temple sanctuary to light six Hanukkah candles, watch teens put on a play and clap to a group of toddlers dancing to the holiday classic "Eight Little Candles," sung in Ladino.

Temple members say they're thrilled that both Presidents Obama and Castro agreed to warm relations between the two countries. And, says David Prinstein Senorans, the temple's vice president, the release of Alan Gross adds to the holiday celebration. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing in banned satellite and Internet equipment. Access to the Internet is closely controlled on the island.

DAVID PRINSTEIN SENORANS: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: It seems as if there was another Hanukkah miracle, says Prinstein, who visited Gross many times during his five years locked up in a Cuban military hospital. Adela Dworin, president of the temple, says the Jewish committee was never involved in importing sophisticated equipment.

ADELA DWORIN: (Speaking a foreign language).

KAHN: It would have been stupid for such a small group to take part in illegal acts, she says. Dworin says she and the community helped Gross because he was a fellow Jew. She points to the few antiquated computer terminals in the temple's library where we're talking.

DWORIN: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: We don't need it. In reality, we have all we need, says Dworin. We can get on the Internet here. It's slow, she adds, but we get by with what we have. While the Jews celebrated the news of improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, across town earlier in the day the mood was much different outside Saint Rita's Catholic Church. That's where the strident, dissident group Women in White meet every Sunday after morning mass.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR #2: (Singing in foreign language).

KAHN: Lazara Barbara Serdina Recalde says the group feels betrayed by President Barack Obama. She says by warming relations with Raul Castro, Obama gave the repressive regime much-needed oxygen.

LAZARA BARBARA SERDINA RECALDE: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: It just strengthens the regime so they can repress us more, she says. After mass, the group of 70 women, all dressed in white and carrying a plastic pink gladiola, walked silently down a main thoroughfare of Havana. At the end, they stood in front of the large white church and chanted.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

KAHN: Freedom, freedom they called out. They say no changes will come to Cuba as long as Raul Castro is in power and they say he can't be trusted. According to the White House, Castro was to release 53 political prisoners from Cuban jails. The women and other human rights activists say none have been released so far. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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