SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – A Jewish family’s annual reunion on the white sand beaches of Jamaica turned into a nightmare when a deadly hurricane ripped across the Caribbean, killing at least 28 people and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
The Alberga family had converged last week on the idyllic island from Britain, Canada and Cameroon on their annual pilgrimage back to the birthplace of the family’s patriarch, Tony Alberga. But by Aug. 20 the eight adults and eight children – seven from Toronto – were hunkering down in their holiday villa in Ocho Rios on the island’s north shore preparing for Hurricane Dean and its wind gusts of 150 miles per hour.
With no power across the island, only an intermittent signal on a Blackberry enabled the Albergas to communicate with their relatives overseas.
Jeremy Alberga, who works on HIV/AIDS research in Africa, described the hurricane as “ferocious.”
“It was scary,” he told JTA in an e-mail. “The most dangerous thing was flying debris; you never knew when a tree could take out a window or whether the roof would survive.”
His mother, Marion Alberga, sent an e-mail to her brother in London and sister in Scotland.
“It was pretty scary,” she wrote. “Thank you all for your expressions of concern which have been so appreciated as it has been a very anxious time, and a very long 24 hours.”
The Albergas’ property escaped with several leaks and minor damage to the exterior because the eye of the storm moved south of the island at the last minute. But it was upgraded to a Category 5 storm – the highest level – as it made landfall in Mexico the next day.
In 2006, Tony Alberga, who now lives in Toronto, co-authored “The Island Of One People,” a history of the Jews of Jamaica, with his sister, Marilyn Delevante. She is among the last 200 Jamaican Jews, the dying embers of a community that was founded by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century.
At its height in the 1880s, the community numbered more than 2,500 and there were at least eight synagogues. Only Shaare Shalom in Kingston remains active, but the last rabbi left the island in 1978.
In an e-mail several days after the storm, Delevante told JTA that “there has been some damage to the synagogue, but nothing serious.” She said Dean was the strongest hurricane to hit Jamaica in her lifetime.
The most difficult part for her family, Delevante said, has been dealing with fallout of the storm.
“No power, no Internet, no TV, no ice, all your food goes bad,” she said. “We spend hours roaming the city to find ice.”
In the introduction to their book, Tony Alberga and Delevante wrote: “Jews in Jamaica? Jamaica is Bob Marley and reggae, sun and rum, white sandy beaches and all-inclusive hotels – yes, that too, but Jews as well.”
Indeed, they wrote, Jews had become so prominent that by 1849, eight of the 47 members of the House of Assembly were Jewish, including the speaker, which prompted him to cancel parliament on Yom Kippur – apparently the first modern parliament to do so.
Their book notes that mother nature has taken a hefty toll on the Jews of “The Rock,” as locals refer to the country.
The great fire of Kingston in 1882 destroyed the Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, and some shuls that were rebuilt were subsequently razed in the 1907 earthquake. In 1912, the shul in Montego Bay was destroyed by a hurricane.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert battered Shaare Shalom, which was built by Alberga’s grandfather and his brothers. Nonetheless, the congregants gathered at the shul, one of the last in the world with a sand floor – a throwback to the Inquisition when Jews were forced to hide their religion and used sand to muffle the sound of their feet as they prayed.
They welcomed in the Jewish new year – under umbrellas.