What comes to mind when you think of Jamaica? Beaches, jerk chicken or reggae music, perhaps? How about Jewish heritage? It’s not something most people associate with the island nation. But as it turns out, Jews who first arrived here about 400 years ago have had a major influence on almost every aspect of Jamaican life, from politics and business, to education and the arts.
On a recent trip to the island, I was surprised to learn the capital Kingston has a beautiful old synagogue, and that Jamaica is home to the oldest continuously operating Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere! Who knew?
Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom (Holy Congregation of the Gates of Peace) synagogue is a gorgeous gleaming white structure dating to 1912 that looks like it just received a fresh coat of paint. Located on the corner of Duke and Charles streets, about seven blocks northwest of William Grant Park (known as the Parade) in the heart of downtown, it replaced the first synagogue built on the site in 1888 that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1907.
I didn’t come with high hopes though. A guidebook I consulted said it was usually locked, though on weekdays someone in a nearby office with a key could apparently let visitors in. I arrived on a weekend, but luck was on my side. The doors were open and the first person I met was Ainsley Henriques, who was seated on a chair chatting with a visitor from England. Henriques is the senior past president of the synagogue and has deep roots on the island that go back several generations. He’s also a storehouse of knowledge on local Jewish history.
“We are what was the largest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere,” Henriques informs me, “but that was 300 years ago.” Now it’s estimated at between 100 and 200 people, though Henriques believes 300,000 to 400,000 Jamaicans have some Jewish ancestry.
“One of the real problems of Jewish communities is if there’s no infusion of more people, then they tend to disintegrate,” he says.
I ask if it’s hard to cover the cost of the synagogue’s maintenance with so few members. “No, we have adequate funds to do it,” he replies, “but sometimes we don’t have enough people to make a full service. That usually is 10 – men and women. We count women equally religiously,” he adds. “We’re what I term ‘liberal Conservative,’ but we allow women to become full members of the congregation and have the opportunity to be called for the reading of Torah.”
One of the synagogue’s notable features is the sand-covered floor. “The legend is it was to silence the footsteps when we were practising services in our basements in Spain and Portugal during the time of the Inquisition, when we should’ve been expelled … and we weren’t allowed to practise Judaism. That’s a legend,” he states.
“The other legend was we should multiply as sand on the sea shore, and the third one which I enjoy telling, is it’s a great tradition because it allows children to play in the sand when they’re at service,” he chuckles.
Worshippers at the synagogue form the United Congregation of Israelites, reflecting the amalgamation of the Sephardic and the English and German (Ashkenazic) congregations in 1921.
To get a sense of Jewish roots on the island, it’s worth a visit to one of the many Jewish cemeteries. The oldest is at Hunt’s Bay, across from Kingston Harbour, near where Jews settled in Port Royal and where the oldest surviving gravestone is dated 1672.
Meanwhile, on the north coast, Marina Delfos has been leading tours of the Jewish cemetery in the historic town of Falmouth for the past five years, through her tour company, Falmouth Heritage Walks. She shares what she’s learned from various sources, including a Facebook page that she started in 2012 called Jewish Jamaican Journeys.
Another excellent and more encompassing source of information on Jewish-Jamaican history can be found next to the synagogue at the Shaare Shalom Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center, with display cases containing important religious artifacts and detailed textual information on several large panels.
Many of the earliest Jews who migrated to Jamaica were the descendants of families that once resided in Spain and Portugal. In 1492, under King Ferdinand and his wife Isabella, Jews who didn’t convert were expelled from Spain. About 30,000 fled and settled in other parts of Europe, including the U.K., France and Holland.
Some of these Jews later made their way to Jamaica, or may have been brought over to assist in the manufacture of sugar when England took control of the island.
In Port Royal, where the British built a fort and the town began to attract merchants and traders, a deed dated Jan. 26, 1677, was discovered that shows land was purchased on New Street (informally called Jew Street) to construct a synagogue. The building was later destroyed by an earthquake on June 7, 1692. Jamaica once had eight synagogues. Only one remains.
By 1730, Jews represented about 12 per cent of the white population on the island. By this time, a number of Ashkenazic Jews arrived from England and Germany. They formed the Congregation of English and German Jews in 1788 and Congregation Mikve Israel in Spanish Town in 1796.
Jamaica’s Jews began to spread out to other areas of the island, establishing businesses in port towns where they could facilitate trade in produce and manufactured goods. The towns of Lacovia and Falmouth had significant Jewish populations. The most recent newcomers included a few Jews from the remains of the Ottoman Empire who settled in Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century, followed in the 1930s by refugees escaping anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.
Jews didn’t completely escape discrimination in Jamaica, however, especially in the early days. While working as merchants in the plantation economy that involved the production of sugar, indigo, cotton and later coffee, they were required (between 1690 and 1740) to pay a tax known as the Jew Tax.
A pivotal point in Jewish life in Jamaica occurred in 1831. Prior to that, Jews and people of colour were not allowed to vote or hold public office. But when the restrictions were lifted, Jamaica’s Jews began to participate fully in public life. Alexander Bravo became the first Jew to be elected to the House of Assembly in 1835. Other Jews became mayors, senators, government ministers or heads of public bodies, or were appointed as custodians or justices of the peace. In 1849, the assembly even agreed to recognize Yom Kippur and adjourn sittings on that day.
Jews had already occupied many other occupations. Some were wharf owners, shopkeepers or lumber merchants, while others were lawyers, doctors, artists and musicians. By the early 20th century, they became totally integrated in the country’s life and culture.
Henriques himself has had a varied career. He founded the Jamaican Export Trading Company and the Jamaica Jewish Genealogical Society, served as the head of the National Heritage Trust and created the country’s agro-parks system.
It was a pleasant and unexpected surprise to meet someone who is a repository of so much knowledge on Jewish Jamaican history. Judging by his parting words as I was leaving, I got the feeling he was friendly with more than a few Jewish communities beyond Jamaica’s borders. “Tell them at Holy Blossom I said ‘hello,’ ” he chimed, referring to the Jewish temple in Toronto.
Jewish contributions & achievements in Jamaica – a few highlights from the Shaare Shalom Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center:
• Jamaican Jews started the first news publications on the island, including the Jamaica Gleaner, which was founded in 1834 by the Decordova brothers, Joshua and Jacob, who went on to become land developers in Texas;
• The oldest known book published in Jamaica – Reason and Faith – is believed to be the work of Haham Jeoshua Hisquiau de Dordova (under the pseudonym Rabba Henriques). Published in 1788, it was the first to use Hebrew letters in a Jamaican work;
• Myer Leoni was a well known performer on the London stage who became the first hazzan of the English and German Congregation in Kingston;
• Frederick Cowen, born in Kingston in 1852, was a noted composer and conductor who was knighted for his achievements;
• In the early 1800s, Isaac Belisario, the island’s first recognized artist, was the first person to paint ordinary Jamaican people instead of just English planters. His art was featured on several postage stamps;
• Sir John Simon, born in Montego Bay in 1818, was the first Jew to be appointed a judge in England;
• Rudolph Henriques designed the beautiful Ward Theatre in Kingston, which still stands today;
• Some of Jamaica’s finest educational institutions were founded by Jews, including the Hillel Academy, a private secular preparatory school, which later added a secondary school;
• Jamaican Jews donated money for the creation of two museums in the U.S. – the Delgado museum in New Orleans and the de Cordova museum near Boston.