KINGSTON, Jamaica (JTA) — A Caribbean mineral bath was her mikvah.
Marie Reynolds used the living waters of Kingston’s Rockford Mineral Baths for the ritual immersion required to complete her conversion to Judaism, formally becoming a member of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere: Jamaican Jewry.
The tiny, racially mixed community — “200 souls,” as Jewish community leader Ainsley Henriques puts it — may well depend on Jews by choice like Reynolds.
Even prior to her conversion, Reynolds, who had studied Judaism on and off for more than a decade, was a choir member and soloist at Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom, Jamaica’s only synagogue.
Once a regular churchgoer, Reynolds, 52, said she was drawn to Judaism initially by her desire in the late 1990s to have a day of rest. A visit in 1998 to the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York gave Reynolds, a child psychotherapist, a deep sense of connection to Judaism.
“I felt like I was coming home,” she told JTA.
A year or two after the museum visit, she discovered that her mother-in-law’s family was Jewish; her husband had no idea.
Given the Jewish community’s centuries-long history in Jamaica, it’s not shocking that Reynolds’ husband has Jewish roots. The 73-year-old Henriques, who wears the multiple hats of community leader, historian and Israel’s honorary consul, believes that as many as 10 percent of Jamaicans have Jewish ancestry.
“We’ve sown our seeds wide and far,” said Joseph Matalon, 67, whose family is among Jamaica’s newer arrivals, having come to the island from Damascus, Syria, in the 20th century.
Matalon also cautions that there may be some racial bias in many Jamaican claims to Jewish ancestry.
“It important to be white” or have light skin, he said of the residents of a country that is 90 percent black. “When they tell you that their great-great-grandfather was Jewish, they’re saying they’re white.”
Reynolds says she does not know if she has any Jewish ancestry.
“People like success and like to be connected to success; I have a feeling they see the Jews as successful,” said Marilyn Delevante, 76, a retired physician and author of “The Island of One People: An Account of the History of the Jews of Jamaica,” which she wrote with her brother, Anthony Alberga.
Jewish roots in Jamaica run deep. Some conversos — Jews who were forced to convert during the Inquisition, but continued to practice Judaism in secret — may have arrived on the island with Christopher Columbus in 1494 and during his later trips, according to Delevante’s book.
In 1577, Jews were free to live and work on the island, but it wasn’t until the British conquered Jamaica in 1655 that Jews were permitted to practice their religion openly and establish a Jewish community, including synagogues and cemeteries.
Efforts are under way to catalog, clean up and restore 13 remaining cemeteries, only one of which is actively used.
Since the 17th century, Jamaica’s Jews have been an integral part of the country as merchants, doctors, lawyers, accountants, artists, entrepreneurs and government officials. The first synagogue was built in Port Royal in the mid-1600s, then destroyed in a 1692 earthquake that leveled much of the area.
For much of the nation’s history, Jews have been well integrated in the community at large, and intermarriage has been common — despite some anti-Jewish sentiment in the early years of British rule.
“We’re very much part of the community,” Delevante said. “We’re not separate, and we don’t separate from anyone.”
By 1849, enough Jews were serving in the House of Assembly that it didn’t meet on Yom Kippur. When Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962, its first ambassador to the United States was a Jewish businessman and lawyer, Neville Ashenheim.
A downside to the Jewish community’s acceptance and integration in Jamaica is its dwindling numbers, exacerbated in some years by political uncertainty, but primarily blamed on the emigration of young Jews who study abroad and don’t return home. At the community’s peak in 1881, Jews comprised 4.5 percent of Jamaica’s population of 580,000 (17.5 percent of the white population), according to Delevante’s book. Today, Jews represent a micro-fraction of 2.6 million Jamaicans.
The community has no mohel, no mikvah and no place to buy kosher meat. The last bar mitzvah ceremony for a Jewish child living in Jamaica was more than a year ago; most b’nai mitzvah are children of former residents returning for the celebration or those who have chosen a “destination” bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. The same is true for wedding ceremonies.
Hillel Academy, a prep school with 20 or so Jews in a student population of 650 to 700, was founded and is run by the Jewish community, but aside from closing for Jewish holidays, it doesn’t have much Jewish character. It’s more of a symbol of the Jewish community’s focus on education nationwide.
“We have felt obliged to do as much as we can for this country because this country has been very good to us,” Delevante said.
Last year, Shaare Shalom hired its first full-time rabbi in more than three decades, Dana Evan Kaplan.
“The need for a rabbi was really to pull the congregation together and increase the knowledge and awareness of Judaism in the community after being without this level of leadership for so many years,” said Stephen Henriques, 51, a synagogue vice president who was responsible for much of the religious leadership before the rabbi’s arrival.
(Stephen Henriques, Ainsley Henriques and Delevante, whose mother was an Henriques, are cousins, although Stephen Henriques assures me that while many in the synagogue can trace their roots to a small group of early Sephardic families, not everyone is related.)
Among the cousins, Delevante, who says she is probably the only Jew in Jamaica to keep kosher, appears most worried about the future of Jamaican Jewry.
Despite the high intermarriage rate, however, most children of intermarriage are raised as Jews, and there continue to be conversions. That, community members say, is what will keep Jamaican Jewry going.
“We are doing well and plan on growing,” said Kaplan, who oversaw the completion of 18 conversions in his first year as rabbi. He credits conversion as “one factor in our vitality, but not the only one.”
Reynolds, too, is optimistic. She says the community’s future will depend on Jews who feel obligated to help maintain the community’s heritage, Jamaicans who grew up as Christians but return to their family’s Jewish roots and converts like herself.
“All these will contribute to the maintenance of a Jewish community,” she said. “We will be part of keeping the community alive.”
(Debra Rubin visited Jamaica on a Jewish heritage media trip as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board.)