The Caribbean comprises approximately 13,000 islands (inhabited and uninhabited), cays, archipelagos, outcroppings, inlets and rocks. Not all the islands are under independent control. Some of the islands are under the auspices of the Netherlands, Mexico, the United States, Great Britain and France. There are 35 members (six percent) of the New York State Legislature with Caribbean lineage.
One of the islands with Jewish connections is Jamaica, with 49 islands under their control. New York has two Assembly members and two senators either from Jamaica or of Jamaican ancestry. They include Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman (D – East Flatbush, Brooklyn), Assemblyman Brian Cunningham (D – Crown Heights, Brooklyn), Senator Jabari Brisport (D – Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and Senator Leroy Comrie (D – St. Albans, Queens).
There is a Chabad House at Montego Bay, the capital of Saint James Parish on Jamaica’s north coast. It is a major cruise ship port with numerous beach resorts and golf courses outside its commercial core. There’s also snorkeling and diving at coral reefs in the protected waters of Montego Bay Marine Park.
There are a wide variety of Christian churches, mostly Protestant, a legacy of British colonization of the island. Afro-Christian syncretic religions such as the Rastafari movement also have a significant following. The city has communities of Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Wikipedia makes no mention of Jamaica Chabad or any other Jewish institutions.
At a celebration of Caribbean culture in the Legislative Office Building near the Capital, ushering in Caribbean Heritage Month, the Jamaican Consulate General in New York spoke to the audience mainly made up of state lawmakers.
“This special occasion allows us to reflect on the rich and vibrant contributions that Caribbean-Americans have made to the fabric of this great nation,” said Alsion Roach Wilson, the Jamaican consulate general in New York since 2019. “Do permit me to present a reference to my country, Jamaica. Our beautiful music, our beautiful reggae music and our diverse culture. Our food. There is no Jamaica without jerk chicken and one of my favorites, Bob Marley.”
If you are Jewish with a hankering for kosher jerk chicken, you can get that in Montego Bay prepared by the Chabad of Jamaica.
“Jerk chicken is a spice that goes back a few hundred years. The Jamaican people brought this. We actually bring a shochet down every three months [to prepare the chicken], Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, director of the Chabad of Jamaica told The Jewish Press from his home base of Montego Bay. “Of course, our cooking at Chabad, when people want to order, we have catering and a restaurant so we make sure we give them jerk sauce. Jewish tourists, even if they’re not coming for a minyan or to eat a Shabbos meal at the Chabad House but here to have an experience, you can get the order sent to your resort. Every Monday night we do a barbecue so people get to experience the real authentic Jamaican jerk chicken at Chabad overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
“In 2017 we opened a Chabad Kosher Hotspot. It gives Jews and non-Jews the opportunity to experience kosher food and give Jews the ability to connect with Yiddishkeit. There are more than 100 people who came to resorts, not for religious reasons, who were able to put on tefillin for the first time in their life thanks to the kosher hotspot. We have a little Torah booth at the hotspot and people can also learn about Yiddishkeit,” Raskin concluded.
Back at the Albany Caribbean Heritage reception, one lawmaker spoke of her love for all things Caribbean.
“I’m a daughter of Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados,” said Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman (D – East Flatbush, Brooklyn). “I’m also here to say it’s not about one individual country it’s about all of us together, united as Caribbean. We can never lose sight of that. One Caribbean, one love and unity. We stand to move our community and the state forward.”
The head of the state Assembly had a few poignant words for the crowd.
“Even though I have that beautiful black, blue and yellow Bahamian flag, there is a sprinkle of Jamaica. I’ve been to a few of the islands in the Caribbean,” said Carl Heastie (D – Eastchester, The Bronx).
Jews appear not to be the only people living in the diaspora. Heastie also echoed words he heard from an influential pastor.
“As much as we are prideful of the different islands that all our ancestors came from, he said it was really determined by which stop on the slave ship that we were dropped off on. I just think that as much as we want to be happy and prideful of all the beautiful Caribbean islands that we all come from, let’s just always remember what united us,” Heastie said. “We all came from Mother Africa and we were just dropped off at different stops along the slave trade. It’s always good for us to know our history and know our past. That’s how we are able to chart our future. But it’s really good for us to come together, all of us who are along the Caribbean diaspora to celebrate our heritage.”
The Raskins set up shop in Jamaica, first in Kingston and now in Montego Bay in 2014, nine years ago this summer. When they first arrived, there were a scant number of Jews, about 60 Jews on the Raskins’ first visit. “We met one Jew who said he keeps kosher and brings kosher food from Florida,” Raskin said.
“Right now, we know of about 360 Jews island-wide. That’s including snowbirds who have winter homes here. That’s locals,” Raskin said. “Then you have close to 200,000 Jewish tourists come here a year out of four million tourists in total. On Chanukah, we opened up the first mikveh in Jamaica. In 400 years of Jews living in Jamaica, there was never a mikveh. Maybe they used the ocean. We have a beautiful mikveh and we have a beautiful shul overlooking the Caribbean Sea. We’re across from the resorts.”
Located near the hotels on another island several hours away from Jamaica is the Aruba Chabad. Aruba’s first and third prime ministers were Jewish, Henny Eman, the first prime minister of Aruba (1986-1990) and again from 1994 to 2001, and his younger brother Mike Eman, who served from 2009 to 2017. Mike Eman played an active role in the Jewish community. He has worked to promote the presence of Chabad in Aruba.
“There are between 150 to 200 Jews living in Aruba. There are a few more we didn’t get to know yet. I don’t know all of them yet but yesterday I discovered two more Jewish people who live on the island,” Rabbi Ahron Blasberg told The Jewish Press. “September will be 10 years since I began in Aruba. We’re building a mikveh and looking to finish it in three months. We have a Hebrew school every Sunday. We have 12 Jewish students between the ages of 4 and 10 and we have a summer day camp.”
Rabbi Blasberg, 37, runs the Aruba Chabad with his wife, Chaya. The couple has been married for 13 years and have five children: Menny, Leah, Ariel, Dena and Dovy. Rabbi Blasberg was brought up in Yerushalayim but was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Chaya, 34, grew up in Leeds, England.
“We get our kosher food from Miami. If I run out of chicken today, I won’t get any more for the next two weeks. I have to always make sure I’m not low on the stock. We have weekly boats come in from Miami,” Blasberg said. “We have a big wholesale supplier of kosher food. The food takes two weeks to get to us. The boats kept coming into Aruba during Covid. We placed our order for Pesach two weeks before Covid hit. When the Passover food came no one showed up so we had plenty of Passover food that year.”
Chanukah is special for the Blasbergs because Jews and non-Jews attend their events.
“For Chanukah every year we put a lot of money and effort to create a great celebration on the island. That way any Jew on the island will want to come to the Chanukah event,” Rabbi Blasberg said. “We make a big concert and we could have up to 1500 people at the November concert.”
The Jewish attendance for Shabbos and Yom Tovim varies throughout the year.
“Some Jews will only come to Montego Bay because they can daven and get kosher food. We have a nice crowd among those who will book their vacation where Chabad is,” Raskin said. “They’ll only come when we have a minyan that’s Shalosh Regalim [Three Pilgrimage Festivals], Yom Tovim, the month of January, and the end of February, it’s very busy and we get a minyan about three times a day. Only that time for now but hopefully it will expand and we’ll get a minyan more often. Between Nachamu and school time it gets busy around here with Jewish tourists.”
In Aruba it’s about the same.
“We get daily minyamin in August, December and January. The rest of the year we almost always get a minyan,” Blasberg said. “The biggest challenge is that we have to create everything. We have to be the rabbi, the rebbetzin, order, cook and serve the kosher food, we have to educate other kids and our kids, who are homeschooled and we have to be the entertainers, greeters and be the first happy face our visitors see when they arrive. We are the ones who have to create the whole Jewish atmosphere in Aruba. Everything depends on us. It’s not a very big community where other people can be in charge of something.”
How the Raskins got to opening a Chabad House.
“In 2012 I was on a mission to the ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao – for a summer. That was my first introduction to the Caribbean,” Raskin recalled. “Once we got married, I was ready to continue the Rebbe’s legacy to open a Chabad House anywhere in the world as long as there are a few Jews. We met about 60 Jews on our first visit. We met one Jew who said he keeps kosher and brings kosher food from Florida.”
That’s when the Raskins thought there was a kernel of a possibility to be successful.
The Raskins landed in Jamaica after going to the Ohel in Queens to ask the Rebbe for a blessing with “a clear direction and sign” whether they should set up shop in Jamaica or somewhere else. During the 1950s until the 1990s, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent roving rabbis to Jamaica. Nothing ever panned out for a lengthy stay.
“All along we stayed in touch with the family we met who keeps kosher.”
The Raskins traveled to Israel for the funeral of Raymond Doweck, who lived in Kingston, Jamaica and always wanted a Chabad House on the island.
“The brother of Raymond Doweck told me after the funeral if you are going to open a Chabad in Jamaica, we’re going to give you my brother’s house to start Chabad over there in Kingston and we’re going to be your first supporters. For me and my wife, Mushkee, that was a clear answer and the rest is history. We named the shul The Chabad House of Jamaica in loving memory of Raymond Doweck,” Raskin said.
The Raskins have three children and have been married for 10 years. Mushkee, 31, a native of Crown Heights, is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist Rebbetzin. Yaakov, 33, is a native of Montreal and third-generation shliach. Jamaica has become the ninth Caribbean Island to have its own full-time Chabad presence.
As a side note, the first set of Jews in Jamaica arrived in 1530 [493 years ago]. As the Jewish population increased, so did the deaths. There are now 21 Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica. The Hunts Bay Cemetery, established in the 16th century, is one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest of any denominational cemetery in Jamaica. Hunts Bay Cemetery has been declared a Jewish Heritage site. The oldest tomb is believed to be that of Abraham Gabay who died April 6, 1672.
While some look to the past, the Raskins are looking towards having a bright future.
Besides the mikveh, a new Chabad Center, a summer camp and kosher food options, “We have a beautiful deck attached to the Chabad House where a family can do bar and bat mitzvahs or weddings up to 150 people,” Raskin noted. “This is very new and exciting for our future endeavors.”
To learn more about the Chabad House of Jamaica go to www.jewishjamaica.com.
To learn more about the Chabad House of Aruba go to www.jewisharuba.com.