Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Secret History Of The Jewish Caribbean

A vacation favorite for year-round sunny skies and sandy beaches, the Caribbean is also an intriguing potpourri of diverse communities.  Loud and proud, the story of Jewish ties to the Caribbean is a fascinating one, dating back to Christopher Columbus and his first trans-Atlantic voyage. Home to some of the oldest Jewish communities in the Americas, the Caribbean also lays claim to synagogues with sandy floors, cemeteries that date back hundreds of years and Jewish families who still call the islands home. Whether you’re planning to marry in a Jewish ceremony, host a Bar Mitzvah, celebrateRosh Hashanah from September 13 – 15, observe Yom Kippur  from September 22 -23 or simply have a hankering for a good pastrami sandwich, check out our sampling of Caribbean Jewish roots.
Jamaica 
In a striking white building on Duke Street in Kingston, the synagogue called the United Congregation of Israelites or Shaare Shalom is a licensed attraction by the Jamaica Tourist Board. (Photo: Jamaica Tourism Board)
With a smile as wide as the sea, Ainsley Henriques is delighted to show-off the synagogue that is near and dear to him. The affable grandfather is not only the Director of Jamaica's only synagogue; he’s also the enthusiastic keeper of Jewish Jamaican history, which dates back to 1494 when Spanish JewLuis de Torres sailed to Jamaica as Christopher Columbus’s interpreter. In a striking white building on Duke Street in Kingston, the synagogue called the United Congregation of Israelites or Shaare Shalom has a sandy floor as a memorial to the Jews who once practiced in secret. A shrine to the past and a beacon for the future, the synagogue is a licensed attraction by the Jamaica Tourist Board. "We now have something in common with the Bob Marley Museum and coffee tours to the Blue Mountains," Henriques smiles. For visitors, the century-old synagogue is open Mondays to Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., for prayers on Friday and Saturday and for holiday celebrations. Next door, the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Centre is also open to the public. In Montego BayChabad Lubavitch — a New York based Jewish outreach organization with over 3,000 centers in 65 countries — is open near Sandals Royal Caribbean for holiday services, kosher meals and advice about weddings and bar mitzvahs. For history buffs, Jewish Jamaica offers tours to the port town ofFalmouth where prosperous Jewish families once lived. You'll be shown around Jewish-owned sugar plantations and Great Houses and cemeteries like the one in Montego Bay next to the synagogue that was wiped out during the 1912 hurricane.
Cayman Islands
Although there is not a synagogue per se, Chabad House is the go-to-spot for the 300-500 Jews calling the Cayman Islands home and tourists who may want to marry on the island. (Photo: Chabad Cayman)
On Grand Cayman in the Seven Mile Beach strip across the street from the Marriott Resort and the Queen’s Court Plaza, Chabad House is a community center with programs like a Hebrew School, classes for moms and tots, Sabbath prayers open to everyone and holiday celebrations that are particularly lively affairs. Although there is not a synagogue per se, Chabad House is the go-to-spot for the 300-500 Jews calling the Cayman Islands home and tourists who may want to marry on the island. For religious Jews, there is a surprisingly big selection of kosher food at Foster's Food Fair and Kirk Market and for those on the hunt for a pastrami or corned beef sandwich, Foster's at the Strand in the Seven Mile Beach area is the store of choice. For the Jewish New Year, Ritz-Carlton is hosting a holiday dinner with tickets priced at USD $45.00 for adults and USD$30.00 for children. In addition to a grand dinner at the grand resort, Israel’s Soul Key Choir is providing the evening's entertainment.
Barbados
Nidhe Israel, also known as Bridgetown Jewish Synagogue was bought back by the Jewish community in 1983. (Photo: Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean)
The only synagogue in Barbados, Nidhe Israel, also known as Bridgetown Jewish Synagogue, is also one of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere and a Barbados National Trust property. Built in 1654, destroyed by a hurricane in 1831, rebuilt years later and eventually sold in 1929, the 350-year-old house of worship was bought back by the Jewish community in 1983 and today is striking with Gothic arches, grand chandelier and a stained-glass window etched with the Star of David. The first Jews in Barbados arrived from Brazil in the 1600’s, bringing with them the windmill technology that made the sugar industry hugely profitable. By 1925, just a few remained although more families emigrated during the Holocaust. Adjacent to the synagogue, the cemetery is interesting to see with graves that date to the 1660’s, including those of Samuel Hart, founder of the Great Synagogue of London and Moses Hart, the first Jew to live in Virginia. Within walking distance of Nelson’s Statue and Queens Park, Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum is open for tours Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
St. Thomas
Jews first settled on St. Thomas in 1655, but a Congregation wasn't officially founded until 1796. Only nine Jewish families belonged to the congregation in 1801, but by 1803 it had increased to 22, with arrivals from Holland, England, France, and the islands of St. Eustatius and Curaçao. (Photo: Steve Rockstein)
Jews first settled on the then Danish-ruled island in 1655, but a Congregation wasn't officially founded until 1796. Only nine Jewish families belonged to the congregation in 1801, but by 1803 it had increased to 22, with arrivals from Holland, England, France, and the islands of St. Eustatius and Curaçao. Finally, in 1833 the synagogue called the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas was built; the oldest in continuous use under the American flag (St. Thomas is part of the US Virgin Islands which is an American territory). Famous Jews born on St. Thomas include David Levy Yulee, Florida’s first senator and French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Similar to many synagogues in the Caribbean, the floor is made of sand, honoring the Spanish Jews who were forced to pray secretly to avoid religious persecution. Visitors are invited to join the Friday and Saturday prayer services and those held on the holidays.  
Dominican Republic
Regardless, if you head to the courtyard in the center of town, you'll find the synagogue and next to it, the Jewish Museum. Built of wood and painted white and turquoise on the outside, the synagogue is the preferred wedding locale for Jewish couples from abroad. (Photo: sosuavillas.com)
Sousa is a typical tropical town with an atypical history as a haven for Jewish refugees. Better known for baseball and palm-lined beaches than as a sanctuary for Jews, Sosua was an isolated community on the north coast when in 1938, hundreds of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Austria and Poland were offered entry by the ruler of the Dominican Republic at that time. One thousand visas were issued, 650 Jews arrived and were given land to cultivate and animals to rise. The community opened a milk processing factory and other businesses that turned a profit. As to how many Jews remain in Sosua today, it depends who you ask. Many have left for New York and more to Miami where thousands of the descendants of Sosua’s original Jews still live. Regardless, if you head to the courtyard in the center of town, you'll find the synagogue and next to it, the Jewish Museum. Built of wood and painted white and turquoise on the outside, the synagogue is the preferred wedding locale for Jewish couples from abroad. There are no organized tours of the museum or of the synagogue but chances are someone will be there if you arrive in the early morning. Sosua is having something of a renaissance, with the opening of the Puerto Plata International Airport four miles from the town. Resorts were built to meet increased demand, like the new Gansevoort Dominican Republic; a five minute stroll from the synagogue. As a nod to the increasing number of Jewish guests interested in learning about the town's history, a kosher market will open in the resort next year.
Curacao 
An architectural jewel in the capital city of Willemstad, the synagogue is visually spectacular with a solid mahogany interior, 18th-century copper chandeliers and a sandy floor as a tribute to those who fled religious persecution. (Photo: Curacao Tourist Board)
Home to the oldest Jewish community in the Caribbean, Curacao's first arrivals came in 1651 when a dozen families from Amsterdam landed on the island's shores. They built the Mikve Israel-Emanuelsynagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. An architectural jewel in the capital city of Willemstad, the synagogue is visually spectacular with a solid mahogany interior, 18th-century copper chandeliers and a sandy floor as a tribute to those who fled religious persecution. For nearly three centuries, Sephardic Jews — those of Spanish origin — were the only Jews on the island. In the 1920’s, an influx of Ashkenazi Jews or those with Eastern European roots arrived and although the Jewish community has shrunk in recent years, Sabbath services are still conducted every weekend with Rabbi Hazzan Avery Tracht welcoming visitors from the cruise ships that dock in the picturesque harbor and tourists vacationing on the island. There is no cost to visit the synagogue, however, appropriate dress is encouraged which means no sleeveless clothing for women and button-down jackets for men. Connected to the synagogue, the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum houses artifacts like 300-year-old Torah scrolls that were brought from Spain and a 200-year-old silver tray from Holland that is still used for the smashing of the wineglass during wedding ceremonies. The adjacent gift shop stocks a good selection of souvenirs and cookbooks.
Nevis
Today, the only visible reminder of this once-thriving community is the Jewish Cemetery on Government Road, close to the Pier in the capital city of Charlestown. (Photo: Jews of the Caribbean)
Over 300 years ago, the little island across the channel from St. Kitts was once home to dozens of hard-working Jews whose story makes up a little-known chapter of Caribbean Jewish history. The 1678 census listed eight Jewish families during a time when the bustling sugarcane industry made Nevis a Caribbean powerhouse. Drawn to the prosperity were Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Brazil after the Portuguese regained control from the Dutch. By the early 1700’s, dozens of Jewish families had arrived in Nevis, building a synagogue and a school.  A century later, the sugar industry went bust and the Jews moved away in search of new jobs, their stores and homes left behind. The synagogue and school were closed.  Details are sketchy but archives indicate the synagogue was built in 1684, was in ruins by 1809 and completely gone in 1846. Today, the only visible reminder of this once-thriving community is the Jewish Cemetery on Government Road, close to the Pier in the capital city of Charlestown. In in the middle of what was the Jewish neighbourhood, grave markers are inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English and date from 1769 with names like Marache, Pinheiro and Cohen. Surrounded by a cement cinderblock wall, the cemetery was re-dedicated in 1971 after a Philadelphia couple organized the cleanup of the gravestones. Today the sacred grounds are manicured by the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society. A typical Caribbean clapboard house that was built on the land where the synagogue once stood. Sadly, no artifacts have been recovered from the site: historians believe the congregants took the valuables with them when they left the island.
St. Maarten
The new synagogue will also house a preschool and learning center for the 300 Jewish residents on the island (that number swells to more than 1,000 during the winter). (Photo: jewishsxm.com)
For the first time since 1781, the Jewish community in St. Maarten will have its own synagogue when construction on the Old Rock building in Simpson Bay is complete next year. The new synagogue will also house a preschool and learning center for the 300 Jewish residents on the island (that number swells to more than 1,000 during the winter). A little-told chapter in St. Maarten history, Jews arrived in 1732 and built a synagogue on the site of the Guavaberry Emporium in Phillipsburg, but the site was abandoned in 1781. When the first wave of tourism hit the island in the 1960’s, American Jews discovered St. Maarten as a winter getaway, and it has only grown in popularity. Since 2009, Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife Sara have been hosting celebrations and conducting prayer services at Chabad St. Maarten above the Zee Best Bakery also in Simpson Bay. Born in Maryland with time spent in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, the Rabbi is now enjoying life on a tropical island, "We got used to the power shutting down every now and then," he smiles, "but when it happens on a Friday afternoon during cooking preparations, you can imagine what's left of our Shabbat dinner, however, we've learned to go with the flow." In addition to the much anticipated opening of the new synagogue, Le Grand Marche in Cole Bay and Philipsburg carries a big selection of kosher food.

By Melanie Reffes, Special for USA TODAY

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