“When I was a boy, we had over a hundred people at our family seder,” says community leader and Jewish Jamaican genealogist 76-year-old Ainsley Henriques. “But the youngsters migrate and others die,” he continues with a touch of dry humor. “So since the 1980s, when we liberalized the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, we’ve been including women to complete the minyan.” In the summer of 2014, Rabbi Yaakov Raskin of Chabad arrived at the other side of the island, in Montego Bay, to stir the embers of Jamaican Jewry.
Pirates and Plantation Owners
The first Jews came to Spanish-occupied Jamaica between 1494 and 1655. Fleeing the Spanish inquisition, they arrived from Spain and Portugal and settled mainly in Port Royal and later in Spanish Town, Kingston, Falmouth and Montego Bay. Here, disguised as Portuguese, they maintained their faith. In fact, when the British conquered the island in 1655, General Venables recorded the presence of many “Portuguese.” With their skills in finance and trade, and the network they naturally shared with other European Jews, the Jamaican Jews played an important economic role in the huge sugar trade and the shipping industry. On the darker side of things, a negligible minority of Jews took part in the slave trade. Some Jews followed an equally un-Jewish career path and became pirates. More accurately, most of these Jewish pirates were “privateers” – state-sponsored pirates working for the British, motivated by economic reasons and a desire to usurp Spanish rule.
When Port Royal, a hustling and bustling commercial center, sank into the ocean after a massive earthquake in 1692, was then rebuilt and suffered from terrible fires in 1704 and 1815, the thriving Jewish community moved to Spanish Town and in 1872, when it was designated the capital, to Kingston Harbour, the seventh-largest natural harbor in the world.
In 1834, when Jamaica became the first country to abolish slavery, the sugar industry plummeted and many Jews left for Australia and to the United States to take part in California’s gold rush. The migration of Jews, which would eventually lead to the dramatic shrinking of the community, had begun.
The Nest Empties
Throughout the centuries, the Jews of Jamaica integrated into Jamaican society and became part of its leadership. For example, The Gleaner, one of two national Jamaican newspapers, was founded by Turkish Jews who were in the printing business for generations, and the first black prime minister of Jamaica identified as Jewish. Although some Jews came to Jamaica after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and others came from Germany during the 1930s, the size of the Jewish community continued to diminish. Jamaica was not a destination for any of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust refugees.
In 1921, the Ashkenazi Neve Shalom and the Sephardi Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel synagogues merged to form the United Congregation of Israelites, also known as Congregation Shaare Shalom. In homage to the founding fathers, the synagogue still maintains an unusual feature: a sand floor. It seems that in Spain, when praying in secret, sand was scattered on the floor to muffle the sounds of footsteps. Shaare Shalom is one of five existing sand-floor synagogues in the world – four are in the Caribbean and one is in Amsterdam, the destination for many Jews fleeing the Inquisition.
When Jamaica gained independence in 1952, many of the younger generation left the island for North America and Britain. This trend has continued and, like Ainsley Henriques’ three daughters, many youngsters have left Jamaica to pursue university degrees and in search of work. “During the 18th century, there were more Jews in Jamaica than in the States,” says Henriques. “The community numbered about 2,500 Jews at its peak. Today, there are barely 100 left. There simply aren’t enough people to support a dynamic community,” he says.
Of the Jewish families that remain, most, quite possibly all, have intermarried. “In New York, if you have a parent who intermarried, your heritage is questioned,” notes Anna Ruth Henriques, daughter to Ainsley. “In Jamaica, you aren’t judged the same way. We take pride in our diversity.”
A Community Changes
Changes in the synagogue services began as far back as 1912 when the community began using an organ. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the community was led by Bernard Hooker, who went on to become the head of the Liberal movement in Great Britain. After his tenure, spiritual leadership was taken over by community leaders: first by photographer Ernest de Souza and later by Stephen Henriques, a businessman involved in the sale of heavy farm equipment. Over the following years, additional changes were instituted – some rapidly. Anna Henriques recalls, “When my great-grandmother was alive, men and women sat separately in the synagogue, with women in the upper balconies. By the early ‘70s, the service was conservative and by the ‘80’s men and women were treated equally. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, but my sister, who is only one and a half years younger than me, led the entire service for hers.”
In an interview in 2012, as Reform leader Dana Kaplan prepared to take over the leadership of Congregation Shaare Shalom, Marilyn Delevante, MD, an 11th-generation Jewish Jamaican, commented, “…people don’t know what to do to be Jewish. Knowledge of Judaism is important because once you have that you can always increase observance… Not having a rabbi all these years is terrible. Whether a rabbi will make a difference or not, time will tell. Over the course of 30 years, [assimilationist] habits form. It will be difficult to regain Jewishness” (Intermountain Jewish News, 2012). Although Kaplan worked to introduce a “distinctively Jamaican form of Judaism” (Huffington Post, 2012), during his tenure, according to Anna Henriques, synagogue attendance did not increase.
With the arrival of Rabbi Raskin at Montego Bay, a new period is being ushered in. “Not everyone in Jamaica is used to Chabad, but Rabbi Raskin is a good guy,” says Henriques. “He’s providing services and facilities and he has had good successes.”
Anna Henriques, who hopes to one day head back to Jamaica, says, “Rabbi Raskin must be willing to respect what exists in Jamaica. The way to the future is to gently bring in the traditions of the past and at the same time embrace the idiosyncrasies of the Jamaican people.”
Not Just A Resort
Jamaica is primarily known as a resort country. While you don’t need to set foot out of your hotel, the more adventurous will enjoy the natural attractions, including Dunn’s River Falls in St. Ann, YS Falls in St. Elizabeth, the Blue Lagoon in Portland, a cup of one-bean blend Blue Mountain coffee and the Glistening Waters in Falmouth. Visit the Glistening Waters at night when you can watch the water glow around you as small microorganisms called dinoflagellates emit a flash of light when touched. These microscopic organisms thrive in the lagoon where the fresh water of the Martha Brae River meeting the salt water of the ocean creates a perfect balance – found in only three other locations in the world.
Recently, however, the Jewish community, driving for a change in tourist destinations, has been promoting packages that will draw Jewish vacationers away from the country’s cruise ships, resort beaches and natural attractions to visit Kingston, Falmouth and other Jewish points of interest. They hope to raise awareness of Jamaica’s rich Jewish heritage and the importance of preserving it. Marina Delfos of Falmouth Heritage Walks offers a guided walking tour of Falmouth, a historic port town located between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast. One of the highlights of the tour is a visit to the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery, established in the early 19th century and one of the 21 documented Jewish cemeteries on the island.
Anna Henriques, together with her partner, Lyndalee Burks, offers tours of the southern coast of Jamaica. At Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, located to the west of Kingston, you can view bluestone, limestone and marble grave markers with epitaphs largely in Portuguese and Hebrew. The thriving Jewish community at Port Royal wasn’t able to bury their dead in the city. Located at the end of the Palisadoes (a thin strip of sand that serves as a natural protection for Kingston Harbour), they would strike water if they dug too deep. “It must have been a moving ceremony to watch the mourners row their boats across Kingston Harbour to bury their dead on the mainland,” says Anna Henriques. The Hunt’s Bay Cemetery boasts Jamaica’s earliest gravestone, dating back to 1672 – Jacob Gabay, son of Avraham. Also located here is the grave of the wife of Moses Cohen Henriques, a Jewish buccaneer. The newer Orange Street Cemetery, located near the Shaarei Shalom Synagogue, contains stones from the early 19th century. The grave markers are mostly of marble elevated almost three feet above ground on red brick bases and the epitaphs on the vast majority of them are in English. “It’s fascinating to see the buildings constructed by the Jewish community members and then to visit their graves,” says Anna Henriques.
So on your next visit to Jamaica, don’t just visit the usual tourist spots.
Stoke The Embers
In July 2014, Rabbi Yaakov Raskin and his wife Mushkee opened a Chabad House in Montego Bay, right by the main hotel strip. “From gourmet kosher meals to one-on-one Torah classes, even at the beach if that’s what you want, our goal is to celebrate Judaism and the warmth of our great heritage together with the Jamaica community, Israeli business men and the many tourists, regardless of background or affiliation,” says Rabbi Raskin with verve.
So how did the Raskins choose Jamaica? “In 1957, my grandfather became the first rabbi to be posted to the Caribbean,” he says. “When we heard that, we felt that our decision was made.” Over the last year, Rabbi Raskin hasn’t regretted his decision. “Jamaica is known as a place where everyone treats each other with respect,” says Rabbi Raskin. “When we got a flat tire, within twenty seconds two people appeared to help us out.”
While living a full Jewish life on the island is full of challenges (for example, maintaining a kosher kitchen means making an order of 400 pounds of meat every two months and paying 100% duties), the spiritual benefits for residents and tourists are enormous. Over Chanukah, besides setting up six bamboo menorahs around the island to publicize the miracle of Chanukah and holding a Chanukah party at the Bamboo Beach Club in Ocho Rios, Rabbi Raskin visited several hotels and set up a menorah on a table in the lobby. “Within ten minutes, I had forty Jewish families spinning dreidels. One Israeli couple was particularly happy to participate. The wife had lived on the island when her father had helped to build the airport. They had returned for a vacation and she was terribly upset that she hadn’t seen a menorah lit the entire Chanukah,” says Rabbi Raskin.
“A Jew living in Jamaica for the past 45 years attended our Yom Kippur services and now comes every week for lunch and to learn. Since we opened over 1,000 Jewish visitors have contacted us. Many of them ordered kosher food and joined the services Chabad has provided,” says Rabbi Raskin in summary.
Here is a community so small and diluted in Jewish observance that it is in danger of vanishing. And yet, its members are interested in holding on to the Jewish values they know.