|KINGSTON, Jamaica, Oct. 24 (JTA) — Jamaica’s tiny
Jewish community will soon celebrate its 350th anniversary — one
Some 150 to 200 Jews live on the Caribbean island of 3 million.
Mostly intermarried and interracial, the community has had no rabbi
for 25 years and no kosher butcher for 50. But on Nov. 9, it will
mark 350 years in Jamaica and the opening of the Jamaican Jewish
The event will be held in the elegant,
100-year-old Sha’are Shalom synagogue on Duke Street in Kingston.
Governor General Kenneth Hall and Prime Minister Portia Simpson
Miller are expected to attend.
The community will dedicate the center, which will be housed in a
renovated building next door to the synagogue that has been used for
kiddush after Shabbat services. As a multi-purpose building, the
center will still hold some religions ceremonies and community
The center will house a permanent exhibition of Jamaican Jewish
history, cases of Jamaican Judaica, archives, a reference
department, theater and offices for the synagogue and community,
most of whose members are in business.
Thousands of American Jews who visit the resorts of Montego Bay,
Ocho Rios and Port Antonio rarely meet a Jamaican Jew, since nearly
all of them live in Kingston, about a four-hour drive from the white
beaches of the third-largest island in the Caribbean.
Jamaica played a part in founding and supporting the American
Jewish community. A shipload of Jews on their way from Recife,
Brazil to Holland in 1654 was waylaid by Spanish frigates. Taken to
Jamaica, the Jews were held for violating the laws of the
Inquisition, and were freed only when 23 of them proved they were
The 23 then sailed to Dutch New Amsterdam — later New York —
becoming the first Jews to land in America. Over the next century,
Jamaican Jewry financially aided the fledgling Jewish community in
“It’s all about survival,” said American Ed Kritzler, a historian
and long-time resident. “In the face of the Inquisition and always
on the run from it, we settled in Jamaica and the New World, and we
survived. Jamaican Jews have a strong ego that says, ‘We are
Jamaican Jews, we have a stake in this country and we were here
before the English.’ ”
Former synagogue president Ainsley Henriques, whose family has
been here since 1740, said the community dates its founding to the
arrival of the British in 1655, when several Jews helped seize the
island from the Spanish.
“We waited for the completion of the Heritage Center to
celebrate,” said Henriques, who spearheaded the center’s creation.
“We don’t know exactly when the first Jews arrived after the
British took the island, but undoubtedly there were Marranos already
living among the Spanish and native population,” he said, referring
to forced converts.
By 1750, 1,000 Jews lived on the island. They saw Jamaica as a
place where they could live peacefully.
In the 18th century, their legal rights were better than those in
many places in Europe. By 1831 Jews could hold office in Jamaica, a
right not granted in England until 1858. In fact, so many Jews won
elective posts here that in 1849 the Jamaican Assembly adjourned for
Yom Kippur. By 1881, 2,535 Jews called Jamaica their home.
Once there were five synagogues in Jamaica. At the end of the
19th century, one-quarter of the shops in Kingston were closed on
Jews were successful merchants and planters. A minority owned
plantations, while others had small shops or served as
intermediaries for agricultural produce.
Unlike other Caribbean islands, where Jews lived in the large
cities, here they settled throughout the island: in Spanish Town,
Montego Bay, Savanna-la-Mar, Lucea, Port Antonio, Falmouth and
Brown’s Town. Today, 21 Jewish cemeteries are known to exist, but
only two are actively used.
Jamaica gained independence in 1962. Many Jews left during the
political unrest of the 1970s, mostly heading for Miami and Canada.
Why and how do those who remained stay Jewish?
“Old habits are hard to shed,” said Henriques, whom the
government of Israel entitled its honorary consul in Jamaica. He
deals with immigration and matters affecting Israel in the absence
of an ambassador.
Shabbat and holiday services, as well as life-cycle events, are
held in the Kingston Synagogue, whose services are a combination of
Reform and Conservative with Caribbean aspects, such as the sandy
floor used in a few other synagogues in the Caribbean.
One theory behind the sand is that most of the first Jews who
came to the New World had been forcibly converted to Christianity,
but they remembered that when they lived under the Spanish
Inquisition, they put sand on the floors of secret worship rooms to
muffle the sounds of prayer.
The Jamaican Jewish community belongs to the Union of Jewish
Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the
Commonwealth Jewish Council based in London.
Almost every child of a mixed marriage is accepted and brought up
as a Jew, but very few Jamaican Jews read Hebrew, Henriques said. A
Jewish Agency for Israel emissary will arrive in the next few months
to live on the island and assist the community in Jewish education
and holiday celebrations, he added.
As for the future, Henriques says, “This is a pluralistic society
that respects everyone’s religion, and it will be that Jamaican
economic opportunity and tolerance that will ensure our survival for
at least another generation.”
Ben G. Frank is author of “A Travel Guide to the Jewish
Caribbean and South America,” by Pelican Publishing.