Wilfred “Willy” Lindo remembers growing up Jewish in Jamaica.
Things have changed since Lindo, the oldest of eight brothers, each a year apart, decided at the age of 19 to leave home and move to Toronto to live with his uncle in 1966.
“Had my bar mitzvah in Jamaica – that was something special, and when I went back for a family function a few months ago, there was this overwhelming feeling that hit me after walking in to the synagogue – I was home again,” recalled Lindo, a retired accountant who now spends some of his time playing piano in various senior citizen homes.
Known for its sandy white beaches and as a haven for many Canadians in the winter months, Jamaica is also home to a Jewish population that at one time was believed to be greater than 5,000, but has since dwindled to about 200 people.
Lindo said there is also great concern about what lies ahead, since there’s an aging population, growing intermarriage and younger families moving to the mainland. Caring for the cemeteries, some in urgent need of repair, is another issue.
And there are more worries among Jamaican-born Jews now in Canada and the United States about the future of the one remaining synagogue on the island – one that is Reform in outlook, but a mixture of Conservative and Orthodox in tradition.
With the influx of Jews to Jamaica in the 17th century, several synagogues were constructed in Montego Bay, Spanish Town and Kingston. It’s believed that in 1692, Port Royal housed the first of seven Jamaican synagogues. All but one, were destroyed by earthquakes and hurricanes.
The one that lives on, the historic Shaare Shalom United Congregation of Israelites, also known as the Duke Street Synagogue, remains in downtown Kingston. It may not be the oldest in the Caribbean, however. Historians claim that two synagogues are believed to be older than the one in Jamaica – the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel in Curaçao and Nidhe Israel in Barbados.
Turnouts for Sabbath services at Duke Street are now not a concern. But Lindo and his younger cousin, Charles Hendricks, who also left for Canada, know all too well about the dwindling Jewish community in the land of their birth.
“Sure, it’s a concern and the cost to keep a rabbi is one thing, but the cost of not having one can be a bigger problem,” said Lindo, who is a board member of Toronto’s Pride of Israel Synagogue.
Lindo has organized a brunch and dance on June 17 at Pride of Israel hoping to raise donations to send to Jamaica. Cost is $36. The event, with close to 200 people already attending, is open to the public. Those interested can contact Pride of Israel at 416-226-0111 for more information or call Lindo at 416-347-9297.
Constructed in 1912 and replacing an earlier building destroyed by a devastating storm, the Jamaican synagogue has a beautiful Dutch and Portuguese architecture with a white exterior. A powdery white sandy floor and classic mahogany woodwork encompass the interior of the building.
Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities united over time, and two lights burn on either side of the synagogue’s Ark symbolizing the merge. There are also 16 scrolls, some of them more than 200 years old and from former Jamaican and Caribbean synagogues.
Some Jamaican Jews share stories about the Spanish Inquisition, and the tradition of a sand floor dates back to when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, but secretly practised Judaism in the basement of their homes.
Lindo said he read about Jamaicans asking ruling British officials in the 17th century to expel the Jewish community. Special taxes were imposed on Jews – considered second-class citizens because of their religion. Jews, at one time, were also forbidden to hold public office
Despite all of these restrictions, the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper for many years.
“There were some tough times, but the challenge is now to save what we have,” said the 65-year-old Lindo, father of three boys and four grandchildren, who says he shares some wonderful stories with his family about the younger years in Jamaica.
Memories are so comforting that Hendricks, who came to Canada at age 10, said his family decided to have the bar mitzvah of one of their sons at the synagogue in 2005.
“It was something special – we will never forget it,” said Hendricks. “When I step in to that synagogue, it’s my home.”
There is a small fence in front of the synagogue, but no cameras or uniformed security to protect the building, despite its being located a few blocks from one of the tough areas of the city.
“Jamaican Jews don’t have to worry about antisemitism or racial problems,” Lindo said. “Everyone gets along.”
Adjacent to the synagogue, on the same property, is a small cemetery and a hall that serves as a multi-purpose room and houses a collection of artifacts tracing ancestry.
“It’s a marvellous building that needs to be preserved along with the Jewish heritage or it could all very easily disappear,” said Lindo, who developed an urge to raise some money once he returned from the Jamaican simchah involving his extended family.
“My parents were never wealthy when I lived there, but they always found ways to make sure I was in synagogue on Shabbat – first for classes and then services. I know how important it was to them and to me to preserve cultural programs, archives and maintain the synagogue and cemeteries.
“Growing up Jewish in Jamaica, I mention it all the time – the people, the community and the flashbacks of memories that remain so precious to me,” said Lindo. “I just knew that I had to give something back, just help out.”