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JEWISH JAMAICA: WHO KNEW?

BY MELANIE REFFES

Melanie Reffes is a travel journalist based in Montreal and specializes in coverage of the Caribbean.

With a smile as wide as the sea, Ainsley Henriques is delighted to show off the synagogue that is so near and dear to him. The floors are sandy as a memorial to Jews who once worshipped in secret and as the only synagogue left in Jamaica, the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston is a treasure chest of Jamaican history.

A testament to the dedication of the gracious sixty-nine year young grandfather of seven, the synagogue honors more than three centuries of religious freedom in Jamaica. “Jewish people came to our island for tranquility and to practice Judaism in peace,” Henriques says, noting his own family can be traced to 1740.

Open for Shabbat services on Friday and Saturday, the 100-year old synagogue is also party-central for special occasions and holiday celebrations. “We’ve had Bar Mitzvahs and weddings but we haven’t had a rabbi since 1970 and it’s about time we had one,” he says with a twinkle in his eye hoping I might know a suitable candidate.

next century, the United Congregation of Israelites was built on Duke Street where it still stands today and is known as the Shaare Shalom or simply, the Jewish synagogue. Dramatic with a white exterior and spectacular mahogany staircase, the synagogue boasts fourteen Torah (sacred writings of Judaism) scrolls from Israel and countless cherished treasures.

Adjacent in a ramshackle office crammed with books and files, Henriques set up the Jamaica Jewish Genealogical Institute which traces ancestry from as far away as Panama and Venezuela. “There are many stories that can be shared about where we worshiped, lived, worked and buried our dead in more than a dozen cemeteries on the island.” Also under the guidance of Henriques, the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Centre, next door to the synagogue, boasts an impressive collection of memorabilia celebrating a long and proud history. Ainsley Henriques (Photo: Melanie Reffes)

The synagogue is the most recent licensed tourist attraction in Jamaica which means more visitors are stopping by. “We now have something in common with the Bob Marley Museum and coffee tours to the Blue Mountains”, Henriques smiles. With Ainsley Henriques at the helm, tourists of all faiths are guaranteed a history lesson par excellence.

FAMOUS JAMAICAN JEWS 19th century painter Isaac Mendes Belisario’s work is featured on a series of Jamaican stamps.

At the height of the Spanish Inquisition, all non-Catholics were arrested and properties seized. By the turn of the century, the King of Portugal decided Jews must be Christianized which prompted large numbers to leave for Europe and lands in the New World where they could practice Judaism openly. Jamaica was one of those lands where Portuguese and Spanish Jews arrived forty years after Columbus. They settled in Spanish Town, near Kingston, and opened shops and businesses. The community eventually moved to Port Royal, however, there are few records left after the 1692 earthquake swallowed up most of the city. Old-timers remember hearing tales about a synagogue, cemetery and families carrying their loved ones by boat across the harbor to be buried. Jamaica’s only synagogue welcomes guests of all faiths for private tours and holiday celebrations (Photo: Melanie Reffes)

Newspapermen Jacob and Joshua de Cordova founded the Gleaner newspaper in 1833. It is still the most widely read daily newspaper in Jamaica.

The famed Ward Theatre in Kingston was designed by architect Rudolph Henriques in 1912. Sir Neville Noel Ashenheim served as Jamaica’s first ambassador to Washington DC in the 1960’s.

Dramatic, with a white exterior and spectacular mahogany staircase, the synagogue sits proudly on Duke Street in downtown Kingston (Photo: Melanie Reffes)

By the middle of the 18th century, two synagogues were built in Kingston. Sadly, both perished in the Great Fire of 1882. During the

JAMAICA: VOLUNTEERS WANTED FOR MO

RE CEMETERY SURVEY

Following last year’s work surveying and documenting the 18th century Jewish cemetery at Hunt’s Bay, Jamaica, the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions is calling for more volunteers to continue the Jewish cemetery inventory. This year the work includes surveying two smaller historic cemeteries in Kingston, as well as checking inventory work done last year at Hunt’s Bay. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe settled in Jamaica as early as 1530 where they played important roles in commerce and the sugar industry.

Volunteers will inventory, photograph, and map the Orange and Elliston sites and check work at Hunt's Bay. Supported by ISJM.

Contact: ahershaia@aol.com

Donations are welcome and may be sent to: United Congregation of Israelites - Cemetery Restoration Fund, 92 Duke Street, Kingston, Jamaica.

JAMAICA TOURIST 28

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