Since becoming the first ordained rabbi in Jamaica in thirty-three years, I have been working tirelessly with my community to build a Jewish future on this tropical island. Every Jewish community wants to survive and indeed thrive, but there is a particular importance to the preservation and development of the world’s small, history-rich Jewish communities.
As I see it, our collective Jewish future depends on it.
Before I explain my reasoning, let’s briefly review the momentous – but often overlooked – history of our community in Kingston, Jamaica.
The Jewish community of Jamaica traces its origin to Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, who came to the Caribbean in order to escape from the Inquisition. In most cases they originated from parts of Spain that bordered on Portugal. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued an expulsion decree on March 30, 1492, the Jewish community was given exactly four months to liquidate their affairs and leave the country. Those who fled to Portugal were forcibly converted in 1497. Because the Inquisition was not introduced in Portugal for several decades, many Jews in Portugal continued to practice their religion quietly.
In 1536 the Inquisition reached Portugal and Conversos began to leave. The Portuguese held their first auto-da-fe in 1540. This obviously frightened our ancestors, who made discreet attempts to plan their escape. Slowly, Portuguese Jews made their way to a number of cities that had or developed Converso communities. Amsterdam was the largest of these communities. From Amsterdam, they pursued business opportunities in the Caribbean, settling in Port Royal or later, Spanish Town and Kingston. We can trace our current community back to Neveh Shalom Synagogue, which was founded in 1704, but our roots go back even further.
There are similar communities throughout the Caribbean and Central America, including Willemstad, Curacao; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Suriname. Each of these communities still conduct services on a regular basis. Preserving these and other historic Jewish communities is critical for a number of reasons.
First, the fact that the Jews were the original Diaspora needs to be emphasized at a time when various other communities are discovering their own Diasporas. This can help build strong bonds between various national groups, allowing us to share common experiences with those who may not have obvious connections to the Jewish people. This would, of course, promote tolerance, which is always “good news for the Jews.”
Second, the experiences of the Jewish people in virtually every corner of the globe over the course of hundreds and, in many cases, thousands of years is part of the narrative that needs to be told to those who are legitimately asking questions about Jewish existence and Jewish history.
Whether in Israel or in various parts of the Diaspora, we need to be able to explain to skeptics that we have survived seemingly unending persecution and numerous expulsions and have nevertheless maintained our commitment to our people and our religion.
This narrative needs to be preserved and enhanced in actual living terms, and not just through books and museum exhibits. We must be able to tell the story of our peoplehood and be able to demonstrate living examples of that history.
Finally, when individuals travel the world looking for adventure and existential meaning, it is important that we “surprise” them with Jewish history and living, breathing Jewish tradition. Visitors are beside themselves when they discover that the Caribbean island they are exploring not only had a historic Jewish community but has living indigenous Jews who continue to gather together for communal events.
In my short time here, I have met and interacted with numerous individuals and groups who come searching for the Jamaican Jewish community in an effort to discover their own Jewish identities. Some of those who seek us out come away with a new perspective on life and a revitalized commitment to their Jewish observance. In a way, we are like a living exhibit from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.
Over the past seventy years there has been a dramatic contraction of the Jewish Diaspora. From a large and diverse population spread out among most of the countries of the world, we have concentrated ourselves in a handful of countries, living mostly in a couple of dozen large urban regions. This is quite an unfortunate demographic trend.
Dana Evan Kaplan