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.
The Jewish DeCordova brothers founded Jamaica’s oldest and only daily newspaper 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 the most famous of all Jamaican painters, and his works are prized today.
This past September, 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. (Other Sephardic synagogues in the Caribbean also have sand on their floors, though the stories behind the tradition vary.) 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. He recently addressed a joint American Jewish Committee and Consul General of Jamaica event in New York City celebrating Jamaican Jewish culture, where guests enjoyed kosher jerk chicken, cocktail patties, rum punch and tropical fruits.
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.
According to Henriques, 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 Kaplan. The synagogue’s website is 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. Recently 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 physician, 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.
Jamaicans’ Jewish heritage also received some notoriety with the 2008 publication of the popular book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean — How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved out an Empire in the new world in their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge,” by Ed Kritzler. The New York-born Kritzler, who lived in Jamaica for 30 years, died in 2010, and believed that Columbus buried a secret treasure on the island.
There once was a vital and thriving Jewish culture throughout the Caribbean, populated mainly by Sephardic Jews escaping Spain and Portugal. They were active in shipping, sugar cane production, and mercantile activities. While pockets of this culture remain, Jamaica has been and likely will continue to be one of its stronger Jewish communities.
(Paul Foer is a newspaper columnist, writer and yacht captain based in Annapolis, Md. He has recently been published in B’nai B’rith magazine, Jerusalem Post, Moment magazine and Naval Institute Proceedings.)