Unrest in Cuba // A conversation with Cuba-born Jewish activist Joseph Roisman

Joseph Roisman, who resides in Miami, Florida, was born in 1947 in Havana, Cuba. He was the executive vice president for Perry Ellis International, originally known as Supreme International. Joe has held various positions at the company in his 49 years of service and played an integral role in its growth and expansion, including the acquisition of the Perry Ellis name in 1999. Since that time, Perry Ellis has grown to be one of the leading designers, distributors and licensors of apparel and accessories in the world, with well over $1 billion in retail sales. He is currently semi-retired.

Joe has been an active member of the Beacon Council since 1998 and presently serves on its executive board of directors. He also is past board chair of the Cancer Support Community of Miami. He is on the board of directors at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables, the Education Fund and Friendship Circle of Miami. He served on the executive board of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, South Dade Executive Council of AIPAC, and the United Way cabinet.

How long have you been living in Miami, Florida?
Since 1968. I was born in Cuba and left in 1961, when I was 14 years old. If I would have celebrated my 15th birthday there I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave, because I would have been drafted into the youth militia. So my parents put me on an airplane and sent me to Israel on my own, and I lived there on my own for seven years. In Israel I went to high school and then went to the army, and I was there for the Six-Day War in 1967; I was in the reserves.

Did you see combat?
Yes. I was in the tank division as a support member. We were stationed in the south, and we crossed the Sinai and went all the way to the Suez Canal.

So you left Cuba to avoid the army, but you ended up in a war in Israel.
Yes, but at least I fought for unzere.

I see that you speak some Yiddish Where were your parents from?
My father was from Russia and my mother was from Poland. They left Europe after World War I and immigrated to Cuba.

And your parents stayed in Cuba?
Yes, until 1968, when they moved to Miami, and we were reunited there.

How large was the Jewish community before the revolution?
There are about 15,000 Jews, both Ashkenazim—mainly from Eastern Europe—and Sefardim—mainly from Turkey and Syria.

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