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Effort Under Way to Restore a Landmark Synagogue in Barbados

The American Jewish Congress is aiding the descendants of a group of Jews, who settled in Barbados after being expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisitions, to collect funds to restore their landmark synagogue in Bridgetown, the island’s capital. So far, more than $75,000 has been collected in the United States alone, according to the AJCongress.

Paul Altman, a Bridgetown businessman and project coordinator, said the object of the restoration is “to preserve the Jewish heritage and a historical monument for all Barbadians and visitors. If nothing were done now, a part of our history would be lost forever.”

The synagogue is actually the second building on the same site to house the Kaal Kodesh Nidhe Israel — the Holy Scattered Congregation of Israel. The first building was constructed in 1654; thus the location is believed to be the oldest existing synagogue site in the New World.

The original tiny building lasted for almost 200 years, until it was flattened, along with much of the island, in the “killer hurricane” of 1831. The 90-member congregation, undeterred by the disaster, set out to raise funds to restore the place of worship. By 1833, they had erected a new synagogue on the original site.

However, 68 years later, the synagogue began to fall into disrepair. A massive failure of the sugar crop, the mainstay of the island economy, forced virtually all the Jewish families to leave. The building was left to moulder.

ATTEMPTS TO RESTORE THE SYNAGOGUE

Attempts were made to restore the synagogue, notably by Eustace Shilstone, a lawyer and a non-Jew. In 1929, he suggested that the old synagogue be preserved as a national memorial for the Jews of Barbados and for its historical and antiquarian significance. His plans failed to materialize.

In 1983, the government of Barbados acquired the structure and announced plans to tear it down and erect a new Supreme Court building on the site. Alarmed at the proposal, the Jewish community, which had been meeting in homes of members for services, decided to try to save the old building.

Upon request, the AJCongress agreed to serve as a central agency for contributions for the proposed restoration. They estimate that $900,000-$1,150,000 will be needed to successfully complete the project.

The synagogue is presently “in absolute shambles,” the AJCongress reported. The windows have already been restored, and the roof is in the process of being restored, but there is a long way to go before the synagogue looks as identical as possible to the original building, which, according to the AJCongress, is the ultimate goal.

Besides the present condition of the synagogue, another major restoration problem is the disappearance of many of its artifacts. Some items were sold to museums and others were obtained by private collectors.

Despite these setbacks, Altman feels that “a properly restored synagogue will be maintained for the benefit of future generations.”

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