Jews in Jamaica have a long and colorful history, but not enough people know about it.
As the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) recently reported in an article by Paul Foer, many of the Jews who live in Jamaica may be descendants of Sephardic Jews who escaped Europe in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.
The story goes back to the time of Christopher Columbus, who was granted ownership of the island of Jamaica, along with his descendants, by Spanish Queen Isabella.
Jews continue to arrive throughout the 1600s, and restored tombstones show engraving not only in Spanish and Portuguese, but in Hebrew, as well. Jews there were granted full rights together with people of color back in the early 1800s.
Within a few decades, the JNS article points out, eight of the 47 members of the island’s legislature were Jewish, including its Speaker of the House. In fact, the legislative body is said to have adjourned in observance of Yom Kippur.
Fast forward to our own era. In 2011, Kingston’s United Congregation of Israelites Shaarei Shalom Synagogue hired it’s first full-time pulpit rabbi in four decades. The article continues by noting that most of Jamaica’s Jews live in Kingston. Others live in Port Antonio.
The Jews of Jamaica got an unusual shot of publicity back in 2008 when the book titled Jewish Pirates Of Caribbean–How Generation Of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out An Empire In The New World In Their Quest For Treasure, Religious Freedom And Revenge by Ed Kritzler was published.
Amazon describes the book this way: “In this lively debut work of history, Edward Kritzler tells the tale of an unlikely group of swashbuckling Jews who ransacked the high seas in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition. At the end of the fifteenth century, many Jews had to flee Spain and Portugal. The most adventurous among them took to the seas as freewheeling outlaws.
In ships bearing names such as the Prophet Samuel, Queen Esther, and Shield of Abraham, they attacked and plundered the Spanish fleet while forming alliances with other European powers to ensure the safety of Jews living in hiding. Filled with high-sea adventures–including encounters with Captain Morgan and other legendary pirates–Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean reveals a hidden chapter in Jewish history as well as the cruelty, terror, and greed that flourished during the Age of Discovery.”
As the book pointed out, the descendants of Jews who moved to the Caribbean were involved in shipping, sugar cane production, and mercantile activities.
In his article on the JND web site, Paul Foer writes:
The many Cohens and Levys in the Jamaican phone books may not be practicing Jews, though they most likely recognize that they may be descendants of Sephardic Jews who settled there after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
The story begins in 1502 with the fourth and final voyage of Christopher Columbus, likely the son of Converso Jews, who shipwrecked on what came to be known as the Jewel of the Caribbean. (Columbus first visited Jamaica on his second voyage, in 1494.) Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand granted the island to Columbus and his descendants, and there were many Conversos in Jamaica during Spanish rule, living relatively free of the clutches of the Inquisition.
The British occupied Jamaica in 1655, and more Jews arrived and settled in the bustling and very real “pirate capital” of Port Royal until the devastating 1692 earthquake. Some Jews were buried inland at Hunts Bay Cemetery, where restored tombstones were engraved in Spanish, Hebrew and Portuguese, some with images of skulls and crossbones and axes chopping down trees.
There were religious freedoms in the midst of chattel enslavement, and Jews were granted full civil rights along with free people of color in 1831. Within a few decades, eight of 47 members of the island’s legislature were Jewish, including its Speaker of the House, a body that adjourned in observance of Yom Kippur.
Jamaica’s oldest and only daily newspaper was founded by the Jewish DeCordova brothers in 1834, and its first ambassador to the United States following independence in 1962 was Sir Neville Ashenheim. Jamaican-born Isaac Mendez Belisario (1795-1849) is considered to be the most famous of all Jamaican painters, and his works are prized today.
In September 2011, Kingston’s United Congregation of Israelites Shaa’re Shalom Synagogue welcomed its first full-time pulpit rabbi in 40 years. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan formerly led Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Georgia, and has written widely on Reform Judaism and American Jewish history. He enjoys SCUBA diving, a pleasure he may be able to pursue in Jamaica’s warm waters.
The whitewashed Dutch and Sephardic influenced Shaa’re Shalom Synagogue occupies a fence-lined and palm-treed corner of the old city of Kingston. Jewish leader Ainsley Henriques quips that the synagogue’s floors are covered in sand to remind Jews of their desert origins. A courtyard includes the congregation’s office, the exhibition hall that doubles for community functions, the Jewish archives, reference library, a memorial garden with tombstones from early cemeteries, and a caretaker’s home—all now known as the Jewish Heritage Center.
Henriques, whose ancestors settled in Jamaica in 1745, is the former chairman of the Jamaican National Heritage Trust and led the development and opening of the Jewish Heritage Center, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jews of Jamaica. He has also worked on the Neveh Shalom Synagogue site (1704) in Spanish Town, has maintained Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, and is cataloging Jamaica’s other Jewish cemeteries.
In 2010, Henriques co-led an international conference on the Caribbean Jewish Diaspora in Kingston with noted historian Jane Gerber that attracted hundreds of scholars, journalists, and students.
Henriques says that adult and young people’s education is beginning to flourish, and those wishing to return to Judaism, as well as converts, are able to study under Rabbi Kaplan. The synagogue’s website is www.ucija.org.
Most of Jamaica’s Jews live in Kingston, but one of the more unlikely Jewish outposts of this unlikely Jewish island is the once-thriving banana export center of Port Antonio on the rural northeast coast. Featured in the New York Times travel section, Port Antonio is also home to the Great Huts eco-resort, with its African and ancient Jewish-themed rustic accommodations. Its founder, Paul Shalom Rhodes, a Washington, D.C.- based medical doctor, sponsors Jamaica Shalom-Tikkun Olam alternative spring break trips for Jewish college students who combine recreation, education, and service learning at the nearby homeless shelter he developed.
Other Jews own and operate nearby resorts Mockingbird Hill and Goblin Hills Villas, and a former New York lawyer creates beautiful wood furniture at his seaside home.