(As it originally appeared before J-Post editing)
Nestled under the cover of clouds rolling over the majestic Blue Mountains, I arrived to funky Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, searching for a tale about the Jews of Jamaica. Like so many of my tales, the story found me almost immediately.
As is often the case, it all began when I was lost. I had been in Jamaica for all of an hour, and I was stopped on the side of the road, looking at my guidebook and trying to find my way to a guesthouse. A car stopped on the side of the road, and a woman asked where I was going. She was going nearby to my guesthouse, so she invited me in for a ride. As we were driving, I quickly found out that the driver, Deborah Binns, was a member of the small yet vibrant Jewish community of Jamaica.
In classic Jewish hospitality, Deborah took me back to her house to feed me, meet the rest of her family and to learn about the Jewish community of Jamaica. As I learned from Deborah and her mother Yvonne, as well as many other member of the Jewish community I spoke with, the tale of the Jamaican Jewish community is a long and storied one.
In speaking with Dr. Marilyn Delevante, who wrote a history of the Jews of Jamaica, entitled, The Island of One People, she noted, “the Jews of Jamaica were the first permanent inhabitants of the island.” Jews began coming to this island haven of refuge in the wake the Expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Legends contend that the Jewish presence in Jamaica stretches all the way back to Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494, where he “discovered” Jamaica. The occupants of his ship consisted of a few Jewish marranos who came to the island to escape the Inquisition.
Jews continued coming to the island while it was under Spanish control, with reports of a boat full of Spanish-Portuguese conversos landing in 1530. When the British took over Jamaica in 1655, the Jews were able to practice openly and freely, and the community grew and flourished.
In the coming centuries, the Jewish community would prosper as they took part in the trade and commerce in Jamaica. Jewish entrepreneurs were involved in the sugar, banana, and vanilla trade. Jews were also involved in the rum business, with Jamaica’s most famous rum distiller, Appleton Estates, being once Jewish-owned.
Jews were even involved in piracy, as told by Dr. Delevante in a story about the pirate Moshe Cohen Henriques. She noted that Moshe Cohen Henriques was a Jewish pirate known for his cruelness; yet, as the legend goes, Henriques would never harm anyone on the Sabbath.
The Jewish community of Jamaica was also involved in cultural and literary endeavors, on the island including the founding of Jamaica’s largest newspaper, The Daily Gleaner by two Jewish brothers in the 19th century. In the realm of education, Jewish contributions include the Hillel Academy in Kingston- a prominent school founded by the Jewish community that today is open to all students. Jews were actively involved in politics; in 1848, 8 of the 47 members of Jamaica’s Parliament were Jewish, and the Parliament was closed for Yom Kippur.
The Jewish population of Jamaica once stood as high as 5-6,000, but immigration, assimilation and political instability during turbulent times in the late 1970s led to a decrease of the community.
Today, the Jewish community stands at roughly 250-300 people in the whole island. Most Jamaican Jews live in Kingston, but there are pockets of Jews throughout the island, including Israelis in Montego Bay connected with the Israeli construction company Ashtrom. Israel’s Zim shipping is also found in Jamaica, using its harbor in Kingston to ship throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
As Shabbat came, there was a tremendous rainstorm coming down (I was there the week preceding Hurricane Dean), and the streets of Kingston practically had rivers flowing through them. I gave up waiting for the rains to die down, so decided to “swim” my way to the synagogue. I waded my way through the rivers, and pools of water in the streets went up to my thighs, as I trudged my way to the Sha’are Shalom synagogue in downtown Kingston. I arrived, soaked but eager to welcome the Caribbean “Shabbas Bride.”
I entered the whitewashed Sha’are Shalom synagogue, and found a synagogue filled with Jews of many different hues. I was greeted with the rich baritone voice of the cantor Dr. Winston David, and the sound of the synagogue’s pipe organ. That Shabbat, there were 20 Jewish souls; during the High Holidays, the synagogue becomes full, with nary a vacant seat.
The Sha’are Shalom synagogue, the island’s only remaining synagogue, is complete with a mahogany bimah and ark. It is unique for the soft white sand that covers its floor. The sand is to serve as a reminder for the times during the Inquisition when Jews were forced to pray in their basements to avoid detection, and sprinkled sand on the floor to help muffle the sound.
Following services the next day, I perused the small Jewish museum beside the synagogue and spoke with the community’s spiritual leader Stephen Henriques (yes, same last name as the pirate). The community has been without a rabbi for nearly 30 years, but Mr. Henriques has helped fill the void for the community. Mr. Henriques was quick to note how well the Jews of Jamaica have gotten along with their neighbors and stated that there had been no significant anti-Semitism to ever plague the community.
Given the isolation of the island community, inter-marriage has been common. But Mr. Henriques noted that nearly all children of inter-marriage are brought up Jewish. He wanted the outlying Jewish world to know that the Jewish community in Jamaica exists, that it has a rich history and that it is still active today.
Given the separation of the Jewish community of Jamaica with the outside Jewish world, the Jewish Agency recently sent a shaliach to Jamaica to help strengthen the link between the Jamaican Jewish community and Israel and the outlying Jewish diaspora. Alon Gildoni, a 23-year old from Ramat Gan, has been ably serving in this position for the last 9 months, and has really connected himself with the community. Alon also helps provide the community with a Zionist perspective that can be offered only by someone who has lived in Israel, as well as presenting knowledge of Orthodox Judaism to the community. Alon also serves as an educator and resource to the Jewish community, helping prepare kids for their Bar Mitzvahs and teaching courses on Judaism and Zionism. Spiritual leader Stephen Henriques praised the young shaliach, and commented that having a shaliach around has enhanced the community significantly and made it more aware of what’s going on in Israel and the Jewish world.
There is another link that connects Jamaica to the Jewish world. Every year, Chabad sends two shilchim to Jamaica to ensure the smooth working of the community. While I was at the supermarket with Alon, his best friend Shidos- who was visiting from Israel- and David (a French Jew studying in Jamaica), we were able to observe the kosher food situation as we scoured the supermarket looking for kosher products to serve to the coming shilchim, who were fortuitously arriving while I was there.
While there is no kosher meat in Jamaica, there are imported kosher products that can be found in supermarkets, enough that we could make a nice spread for Levi and Sholom- the visiting Chabad emissaries. Levi and Sholom had landed in Montego Bay to visit with the Jewish community there, as well as visit the Israeli workers with Ashtrom, and had come to Kingston to meet with the community there.
With a little free time after the Chabad shlichim’s visit, the whole crew of Jews went on a road trip out to the Blue Lagoon in Northeast Jamaica’s Portland province. After a swim in the turquoise waters and Blue Lagoon, we chatted it up with some local Jamaicans, who were curious if Levi and Sholom were either “Muslim or Sikh.” The Jamaicans looked on with slight confusion as the Chabadniks rocked in their davening by the Blue Lagoon.
Despite the lack of recognition of Orthodox Jewish garb, Jamaica is a very biblically conscious society. Many Jamaicans can recite chapter and verse of the bible by heart, and there are multitudes of churches all over the island. Biblical passages can be found all over town- on billboards and signs above bus stops. There is even a taxi company called “El-Shaddai.”
Jamaicans attitudes to Israel seemed positive, and when my Israeli friends told people they were from Israel, the response was often simply a reply of “bless.” Meanwhile, Jamaica’s other religious sect- the Rastafarians- have cultural and religious links to Judaism and the Torah. Jamaica could prove to be a real untapped opportunity for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to promote tourism to Israel. Meanwhile, there were surprisingly few Israeli backpackers that I encountered- a real surprise given the island’s mellow vibe.
My travels in Jamaica ended just days before Hurricane Dean hit it. As the tiny island paradise is struggling to deal with the after effects of the storm, my thoughts and prayers are with Jamaica and its extraordinary Jewish community.
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