A Jewish journey to Jamaica
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A Jewish journey to Jamaica

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Conference attendees visited Kingston’s Cong. Sha’are Shalom. Jamaica’s first synagogue was built in Port Royal in the late 17th century. Gabe Solomon

Visit the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Centre at Kingston’s Cong. Sha’are Shalom and you will feel right at home, surrounded by glass-enclosed displays of kiddush cups, candle-holders, and havdalah sets.

But chat with members of the synagogue for five minutes and you will enter a different world, where multiracial Jews speak in the lilting cadence of their Caribbean neighbors and are as likely to hug you as shake your hand.

Reporter’s NotebookI was in Jamaica to attend a conference on the Caribbean diaspora (see related story), and it was a cultural wake-up call.

It is not easy for North American Ashkenazic Jews to suspend their usual frame of reference, but one must certainly do so to appreciate, and embrace, the Caribbean Jewish community.

Arriving in the region hundreds of years ago in the guise of New Christians, crypto-Jews sought to escape persecution and the long arm of the Inquisition. While their reception varied from island to island, they found a safe haven in Jamaica under British rule.

Whether as merchants, farmers, or – says Edward Kritzler, who moved to Jamaica from New York in 1967 and wrote the ground-breaking “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” – advisers to pirates as well as pirates themselves, Jews have made their presence felt in the region. And on an island marked by stark contrasts between rich and poor, the Jews appear to have done fairly well.

According to Kritzler, secret Jews “sailed with the explorers, marched with the conquistadors, and were among the first settlers in every New World colony.” And even though they were forced to live as conversos, many kept their allegiance to the Jewish faith.

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Eleanor Hussey converted to Judaism because she wanted ‘a framework of values to pass on.’ Gabe Solomon

The Jewish residents I met in Kingston were fiercely proud of their Jewish heritage but equally proud to be from Jamaica – a land where they have received so warm a welcome. Indeed, the same group that sang Adom Olam in Hebrew on Friday night belted out “Island in the Sun” on the way to visit a restored Jewish cemetery the day before.

They were also eager to claim as their own anyone with a Jew in his or her family tree. While I was there, Jamaican dancehall musician Sean Paul was performing at a local park. “He’s Jewish,” I was told over and over again. In fact, the singer, raised as a Catholic, was born Paul Ryan Francis Henriques. His paternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew whose family emigrated from Portugal.

If Jamaican Jews are particularly open to kinship possibilities, some people I met were equally keen to establish their Jamaican creds. Reggae artist Benny Bwoy – who grew up in an Orthodox family in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and worked for 12 years as a Wall Street investment banker – has dubbed himself the first “JEWmaican.”

Sporting braided hair and singing in a heavy Jamaican patois, Bwoy was equally at home performing his reggae songs and reciting Kiddush on Shabbat with a contingent of journalists.

Ainsley Henriques, generally considered to be the leader of the Jamaican Jewish community, estimated at about 200 members, is a case study in ethnic diversity. Not only can he claim a Ukrainian grandmother, but he can demonstrate a clear genealogical link to noted scholar and Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, who, among other things, served as spiritual leader of Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York City. Also in his family tree are converso Jews who came from Portugal.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said, adding, “I can go back 19 generations. With my grandchildren, that’s 21.”

Whether the black and mixed-race members of the congregation became Jews through conversion, intermarriage, mixed ancestry, or as a result of concubinage (some Jews on the island were slave-holders before emancipation in 1834), racial diversity is a hallmark of Jamaican Jewish life.

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Author Edward Kritzler contends that Caribbean Jews were actively involved in piracy. Gabe Solomon

So too is the power of the extended family. Early merchant ventures, furthering the success and growth of the Jewish community in the Caribbean, were facilitated by family ties reaching from this hemisphere back to communities in Europe. That is why names such as Henriques, Matalon, and DaCosta appear over and over again.

Eleanor Hussey, a member of Sha’ar Shalom, converted to Judaism some 12 years ago. Hussey, married to a Jew and the mother of six, honored both sides of their heritage in naming her children. Every other one has a Jewish name, with names ranging from Rebecca to Savannah.

“I wanted to raise my kids in a moral framework,” she said, explaining why she chose to convert. “I wanted a framework of values to pass on.”

Hussey, who brings her children to synagogue every Shabbat, said that of about 100 members, only 30 or 40 come to shul on Friday night or Saturday. She sends her children to the Hillel Academy, a local private school founded by the Jewish community 41 years ago.

Margaret Bleyberg, director of the academy, said that while 750 students are enrolled there, only 22 are “practicing Jews.” Whether others may be described as Jewish is “a matter of debate,” depending on considerations of ancestry and other cultural factors. Six of the students are Israeli.

The school held its recent anniversary celebration in the synagogue. Founded by Rabbi Bernard Hooker, a past spiritual leader of Sha’ar Shalom, Hillel is owned by the Kingston Jewish community, which appoints its board of trustees.

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Yvonne Binns was “blessed” in synagogue in 1948. Lois Goldrich

Eight religions are represented among the student body. Nevertheless, the institution follows the Jewish calendar, closing on major Jewish holidays.

Hussey, whose husband traces his lineage in Jamaica “all the way back,” said that her oldest son, Ruben, attended the school for primary education. He now attends a Jesuit school “so that he can fully associate with kids socially.”

The Hillel school, she said, “is for the upper echelons” of all faiths. She wants Ruben to meet other children as well, to prepare for running the many businesses owned by the family, including a hotel, casino, and sugar factory.

While at Hillel, Ruben took part in the Star Club, which Bleyberg likened to “a university Hillel group.” Run by Margaret Adam, a member of Sha’ar Shalom and the sister of Stephen Henriques, the synagogue community’s designated spiritual leader, though not a rabbi, the once-a-week extracurricular club brings Jewish students together to learn about Jewish culture.

Adam’s son Joseph, now 16, also attended that club and became a bar mitzvah at age 13 under the tutelage of Stephen Henriques. According to Adam, there are several b’nai mitzvah in the community each year.

While the early Jamaican Jewish community included Hebrew teachers, shochets, and mohels, the community has not had such functionaries since the late 1940s, said Ainsley Henriques. Circumcision ceremonies are done as surgical procedures and newborns are blessed in the synagogue. In addition, boys and girls do not learn Hebrew in preparation for their b’nai mitzvah.

“I read the Hebrew prayers in transliteration,” said Joseph Adams. He added, however, that he has learned some Hebrew phrases from visiting Israelis.

One such Israeli was Alon Gildoni, who spent one and a half years as a shaliach in the Kingston community, leaving Jamaica three years ago. Gildoni, who was invited back to help with the conference, said the Kingston community was “very receptive” to learning more about Judaism and Israel.

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The memorial garden at Cong. Sha’are Shalom contains gravestones rescued from derelict cemeteries. Lois Goldrich

“A shaliach can be many things,” said Gildoni, whose tenure in Kingston included teaching, counseling, and Israel advocacy in both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. (He’s now a student at Hebrew University.)

The second emissary sent by Israel to Kingston, Gildoni said that Jamaican Jews “feel a strong Jewish identity” and are proud of both their religion and their country, “which has had no anti-Semitism for 500 years.”

He urged against reading too much into the fact that the young people in the community do not learn Hebrew for their b’nai mitzvah.

“The youth here are not different from other [young people] around the world,” he said. “A survey of U.S. youths of liberal backgrounds would show that more than 90 percent would say ‘no way'” if given a choice about reading the Hebrew text.

The Kingston synagogue has had three rabbis in his lifetime, said Ainsley Henriques. Now, with membership diminishing and the congregation aging, it is having trouble finding a replacement. “It is not a challenge for [rabbis],” said Henriques.

Still, he added, “It’s not an easy community to serve. The rabbi would have to be a national figure. He would need to be a unique personality.”

Hussey said that the congregation interviewed an Orthodox rabbinical candidate several years ago.

“He said the men should sit on one side and the women on the other,” she recalled. “We didn’t move.”

Conference attendee Yvonne Binns, a mother of six and a lifelong member of Sha’are Shalom, directed me to a table with books about the local Jewish community. Opening “Pictorial,” a photo-history of the community compiled by former community leader Ernest Henriques de Souza in 1986, she showed me a picture of herself, at age 13, after “being blessed.”

“It was my confirmation,” she explained, noting that young girls today have a bat mitzvah instead.

Her own children, she said, chose not to have these ceremonies. However, she added, they all know they are Jewish, and one of her four daughters did her college thesis on the history of the Jews of Jamaica.

Between conference sessions, delegates were taken to visit the synagogue as well as the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, where restoration efforts are under way. Architect Rachel Frankel, a conference presenter, spoke about her efforts to create a digital photo inventory and scaled spatial plan of the site.

According to Frankel, the burial ground has revealed much about early Jewish life, though it is hard to read the faded inscriptions, in both Hebrew and Portuguese. Some contain biblical passages together with information about the person buried there. The tombstones are also rich in Jewish symbols, ranging from traditional depictions of a Kohen’s hands to renderings of a skull and crossbones.

An information booklet published by the synagogue notes that at one time, there were some 21 Jewish cemeteries. Today, only two are in use.

The synagogue – which has an organ in its lofty balcony and an ark made of rich Jamaican mahogany – is one of four existing congregations with sand on the floor.

Henriques suggested four reasons for this tradition. First, he said, “it muffles footsteps,” reminding us of the danger faced by crypto-Jews when they practiced Jewish rites. Second, the Jewish people were promised that they would be as widespread as the sand on the shore. Third, it reminds us of wandering in the desert. Fourth, he said, “the kids like to play in it.”

Sha’are Shalom houses a Jewish Heritage Centre, established when the community celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2006. In addition, the property contains a memorial garden where gravestones from abandoned 18th-century cemeteries have been brought for display and safe-keeping.

While he acknowledges that Jamaican Jewish life today is a pale reflection of the thriving community of years past, Henriques believes that the Jewish imprint on the island – and on the Caribbean – cannot be ignored.

Conference participant Emily Gottreich, vice chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed, suggesting that – at the very least – the Kingston community is worthy of attention for its “longevity and continuity.”

“The Jewish community in Jamaica predates any settlement in New Jersey,” Henriques joked. “There are no Jewish neighborhoods, but the Jews live everywhere.”

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