In 1494, a Marrano named Luis de Torres arrived on the island of Jamaica as the interpreter of Christopher Columbus. Jamaica was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494 until the British conquest in 1655. Numerous Portuguese Jews first settled in Jamaica during the Spanish colonization. In 1530, the first ship load of Portuguese-Spanish Jews entered Jamaica. They settled in Spanish Town (formerly St. Jago de la Vega), the only operating town at that time. Many of the Jews that arrived were Conversos, fleeing Europe to openly practice Judaism.
After the British gained control of the island, Jews were permitted to worship in public. In 1660, Jews were granted citizenship by King Charles. Shortly thereafter, in 1662, Jews arrived from Brazil, England (1663), British Guiana (1664), and Surinam (1673). Jewish communities began establishing synagogues, schools, Jewish markets and shops. Most of these immigrants were Sephardim. During the 17th century one of the greatest Sephardic poets of the period, David Lopez Laguna (1635-1730), lived in Jamaica. Laguna is most recognized for converting biblical Psalms into poems. His book of poems, Espejo Fiel de Vidas (“The True Mirror of Life”), was the first book published in Jamaica under British rule in 1720.
In 1671, the citizens of Jamaica petitioned the British officials to expel the Jewish community from the island, but Governor Lynch opposed this request and it was not enacted. In 1693, however, a special tax was imposed on the Jews. By 1700, Jews were considered second-class citizens because of their religion. In 1703, Jews were forbidden from using Christian servants. Finally, in 1783, Jews were prohibited from holding public office, they were required to work on the Sabbath, and again had to pay extra taxes.
Despite all of these restrictions, the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews were very involved in sugar and vanilla industries of the island. As early as 1530, the Jews had introduced sugar cultivation to the island. They were also leaders in the island’s international trade and shipping companies.
For many years, the Jewish community demanded emancipation and full political rights. On December 19, 1831, the Privy Council in England granted the Jewish community official recognition and equality on the island. Jews were then permitted to vote in the elections and, by 1849, eight of the 47 members of House of Assembly were Jewish, including the Speaker of the House. Jews became so prominent in society that in 1849, the House of Assembly did not gather on Yom Kippur. By 1881, the Jewish population reached 2,535.
Synagogues were erected in Kingston, Port Royal, Spanish Town and Montego Bay. Two synagogues were built in Spanish Town, the Sephardi K.K. Neveh Shalom (Habitation of Peace) consecrated in 1704, and the Ashkenazi K.K. Mikveh Yisrael (Hope of Israel) erected in 1796. In 1844, the two congregations merged due to the exodus of Jews from Spanish Town to Kingston. The first Haham, or spiritual leader, of Spanish Town Jewry was Josiahu Pardo, who arrived from Amsterdam in 1683. The synagogue in Montego Bay was built in 1840, but destroyed by a hurricane in 1912. The Kingston congregation is believed to have begun after the earthquake of 1692, but the old Portuguese synagogue in Kingston, Shaar Hashamayim, was not completed until 1744. The Kingston Ashkenazi synagogue was completed in 1787. Both were destroyed in the Great Kingston Fire of 1882.
During the 18th and early 19th century, Jews emigrated from Curacao and Germany. After that influx, immigration subsided, but rose again in the late 19th century with the arrival of Jews from Egypt and Syria. By the early 20th century, the economic prosperity witnessed during the 19th century began to decline; consequently, many Jews immigrated to the United States and England.
The Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Kingston was destroyed by a fire in 1882. Over the next several decades, many Jews began to intermarry and assimilate, causing the Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues to attempt to merge, but they were unsuccessful. In 1885, Shaare Shalom was built by the United Congregation of Israelites. The original Shaare Shalom was ruined by an earthquake in 1907 along with the Neveh Shalom synagogue in Spanish Town. In 1911, the community of Kingston reconstructed the Shaare Shalom building. In 1921, the Ashkenazim finally agreed to amalgamate with the Shaare Shalom congregation.
Approximately 200 Jews reside in Jamaica today, predominately in Kingston. While only a single synagogue remains, the Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, there are remains of the old synagogues on the island. The Shaare Shalom synagogue can accommodate 600 congregants, though only about 75 attend High Holiday services. In the 1970s, the congregation started counting women as part of a minyan for practical reasons. After the longtime lay leader Ernest de Souza died suddenly in 2000, community leader Steven Henriques held the reins until Rabbi Dana Kaplan was hired. Kaplan is thus the first rabbinically ordained leader the Jamaican Jewish community had had in three decades. In 2014, he said "we get a minyan 90 percent of the time."
The synagogue ark contains 13 Torah scrolls, many of which have been preserved from past synagogues on the island. The sand-covered floor makes it one of just 5 similar synagogues in the world today, among them St. Thomas. It is believed to be a tradition derived out of necessity, originating from conversos' Jewish traditions in the 1600s in northern Brazil, where Spanish-Portuguese conversos [forced converts from the Inquisition] needed to keep their religious practice secret from the ecclesiastical authorities. The sand or clay floors concealed the noise during prayer services.
Services at Shaare Shalom Synagogue are now done in English, while they once were Orthodox. Rabbi Kaplan was ordained at the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and he introduced Debbie Friedman's Mi Sheberach into the services in the 2010s; and aims to replace the classical American Reform organ music and British Jewish hymns now in the siddurim with more modern tunes from local Jamaican musical traditions - especially because the country is the birthplace of amazing reggae music. During every service, the congregation still recites the Portuguese prayer, “for our brethren who are imprisoned by the Inquisition.”
The Island's Jewish Heritage Center, located next door to the Shaare Shalom Synagogue, contains many exhibits detailing the rich history of Jews in Jamacia.
The Jews in the Jamaican community today are very diverse: they are Ashkenazi and Sephardic, black and white, and come from a myriad of geographic locations. Cantor Carl Estick is a black descendant from the Mendez family, one of the first Jewish families in Jamaica. Rabbi Kaplan has helped Jamaicans with Jewish ancestry who want to return to Judaism convert, though there is much skepticism and opposition from some other community members, who actually shut Kaplan's program down. As Kaplan sees it, "conversion is key," because the community is so small and there are many Jamaicans with Jewish heritage who want to convert. The Jamaican Jews, though small in number, are a highly respected minority group.
Various Jewish communal organizations are active, including WIZO, B’nai B’rith, a home for the elderly, and nondenominational Hillel Academy school, founded in 1969. However, there is no formal Hebrew or religious instruction for children in upper elementary grades or above. Twenty-one Jewish cemeteries are scattered across Jamaica. The oldest Jewish cemetery, Hunts Bay Cemetery, is located in Spanish Town, and maintained by dedicated groundskeepers. In the late 1990s, the Neveh Shalom Institute was founded to protect and purchase old Jewish remains from Colonial Jamaica.
Many Jewish heritage sites exist on the island, and locals have recently been trying to draw tourists in by offering tours of Jewish cemeteries, formerly-Jewish owned rum distilleries, and plantations.
Since Jamaica’s independence in 1962, Israel and Jamaica have maintained full diplomatic relations. The Israeli ambassador in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic represents the government of Israel’s interests in Jamaica.