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Trinidad’s Jews stick together

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Hans Stecher and Barbara Malins-Smith are leaders of Trinidad's tiny Jewish community in Port of Spain, the capital. (Larry Luxner)

Hans Stecher and Barbara Malins-Smith are leaders of Trinidad’s tiny Jewish community in Port of Spain, the capital. (Larry Luxner)

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (JTA) – Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Catholic churches can be found all over this oil-exporting island famous for Carnival, callaloo soup and calypso.

But don’t look for synagogues in Trinidad – there aren’t any.

No more than 55 Jews live here, despite the fact that Trinidad & Tobago’s 1.3 million inhabitants make it the second-largest English-speaking nation in the Caribbean, exceeded in population only by Jamaica.

The few Jews who call this twin-island republic home maintain a very low profile because of the country’s turbulent racial history and a 1990 uprising by the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a radical Muslim sect.

Tensions were exacerbated recently when U.S. and Trinidadian authorities arrested four men in a plot to blow up fuel-storage tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The four allegedly had ties to an Islamic terrorist cell in Trinidad, and one of the suspects is a former member of the Guyanese Parliament.

Yet Jewish leaders here take pains to emphasize they “have no difficulty” with the established local Muslim community.

“We’ve never had any open conflict with them, we’ve never felt threatened and they have never targeted us,” said Barbara Malins-Smith, who has been nominated as Israel’s first honorary consul in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. “But bearing in mind the current atmosphere, Jews throughout the world have to be extremely vigilant.”

Jews once had strong business and personal ties with Trinidad’s small but influential Christian Arab community, which traces its roots to Lebanon and Syria.

Trinidad’s ethnic and religious mix is unusually diverse for such a small country: 32 percent of its people are Roman Catholic, 28 percent are Protestant and 24 percent are Hindu. Another 6 percent are Muslim – a consequence of large-scale immigration from India during the 19th century, when they were imported as indentured servants to work the sugar plantations.

“Ours is a very small community,” Jewish community leader Hans Stecher told JTA. “We embrace into our midst people with Jewish roots who are interested in their heritage. We have many sympathizers. Some of our members are Jewish women married to Trinidadians and people descended from Sephardim who have feelings for their origins.”

Yet unlike Barbados, Curacao, Jamaica, Nevis and St. Thomas – where ancient synagogues and Hebrew gravestones attest to a Caribbean Jewish presence stretching back hundreds of years – Jews have lived in Trinidad only since the 1930s.

Curiously, the six-pointed Star of David is the symbol of Trinidad’s national police, and in one Jewish-built housing complex near Diego Martin – a suburb of Port of Spain – all the streets are named after Israeli pioneers like Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion.

Although St. Vincent Street once had a synagogue, “most of the Jews here in Port of Spain were not really religious. The majority were intellectuals,” said Malins-Smith, who was born in Guyana and moved here in 1972.

For years Stecher, who until recently ran a large chain of duty-free retail stores, has been the most prominent Jew in Trinidad.

Stecher, 83, recalled how as a 15-year-old boy he arrived in Trinidad as a Viennese refugee with his family following Germany’s annexation of Austria. During World War II, he was among about 700 Jews interned as “enemy aliens,” though once the war was over most left for the United States, Canada or Venezuela.

The few Jews who stayed, like the Stecher family, prospered and became leaders in the local retailing, tourism and construction industries. They held fund-raisers for Israel, buried their dead in a special Jewish section of the Mucurapo Cemetery and sponsored a drama club that performed plays in Hebrew.

But independence from England in 1962 and the subsequent rise of the “black power” movement unnerved the Jewish community, which at the time numbered 30 or 40 families.

“The revolution was justified and it brought about a number of positive changes for Trinidad, but it was a bit frightening, and a lot of Jewish people didn’t want to be in that stew again, having lost everything in Europe,” Stecher said. “So they decided to pack up and leave for North America.”

Stecher says “the average Trinidadian knows very little about Jews.” Malins-Smith jokes that “people in the Caribbean think all Jews look like Chasidim.”

Malins-Smith says she rediscovered her own Jewish roots the day her sons, Alex and Philip, came home from school and announced they wanted to be Catholic, like everyone else.

“That’s when it hit me, that my Judaism would end with me, because I was an only child,” she said. “The rest of my family had all married out of the faith. They emigrated to Canada, and a majority of them are no longer Jewish.”

This lack of yiddishkeit in Trinidad inspired 31-year-old Web site designer Sarina Nicole Bland in 2003 to establish B’nai Shalom, an informal Jewish organization that meets in members’ homes for occasional services and Jewish holidays.

Perhaps the tiny community’s biggest success is getting Trinidad’s head of state, Patrick Manning, to visit Israel in November 2005 – the first time a prime minister from any Caribbean country had ever made an official visit to Israel, according to community members.

Manning, who is running for re-election this year, has publicly supported Israel, as have various Pentecostal and evangelical churches throughout Trinidad.

But not everyone here is favorably inclined toward Israel or the Jews.

A flurry of articles in local newspapers suggested that Israel and the United States are secretly planning to overthrow Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, using nearby Trinidad as a jumping-off point.

An article in the local Mirror tabloid – headlined “Is Manning a Mossad Agent?” – suggested that, “After all, with the Middle East in turmoil and with Israel pushing for further chaos by trying to set the stage for a U.S. strike on Iran, Venezuela’s supply of oil is critical to the U.S. economy, which incidentally is controlled by the Jews.”

Few Trinidadians take those accusations seriously, though Stecher says he and his fellow Jews are concerned.

“It’s all a callaloo,” he said, using the word for a spicy Caribbean dish. “There’s always the dilemma of whether one should respond or not to such charges. Sometimes it’s better not to respond.”

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