Jamaica’s tiny Jewish community will soon celebrate its 350th anniversary — one year late. 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 Heritage Center.
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 gatherings.
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 not Marranos.
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 America.
“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 Yom Kippur.
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.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.