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.
Map of Jamaica
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
Jews Gain Full Rights
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
Kippur. By 1881, the Jewish population
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
Today, approximately 200 Jews reside in Jamaica, predominately
in Kingston. Only one synagogue remains, the Shaare Shalom Synagogue
in Kingston. Nevertheless, there are remains of the old synagogues on
the island. The Shaare Shalom synagogue can accommodate 600 congregants.
The community is led by Ernest de Souza, who is the spiritual leader,
although not an ordained rabbi.
The ark contains 13 Torah scrolls, many of which have been preserved
from past synagogues on the island. The floor is covered in sand, a
tradition from the Inquisition period of the late 15th century. This tradition began when Marranos would cover the floor with sand during prayer services to conceal the
noise. The services use to be Orthodox,
but are now a combination of Liberal-Conservatist and conducted in English.
During every service the congregation recites the Portuguese prayer,
“for our brethren who are imprisoned by the Inquisition.”
Various Jewish communal organizations are active,
including WIZO, B’nai B’rith, a home for the elderly, and
a school (the Hillel Academy). Twenty one Jewish cemeteries are scattered
across Jamaica. The oldest Jewish cemetery, Hunts Bay Cemetery, is located
in Spanish Town. In the late 1990s, the Neveh Shalom Institute was founded
to protect and purchase old Jewish remains from Colonial Jamaica.
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.
Shaare Shalom Synagogue
Duke & Charles Street
P.O. Box 540, Kingston 6
Neveh Shalom Institute
58 Paddington Terrace, Kingston 6
Judaica - CD ROM Edition Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Ltd.
Zaidner, Michael. Jewish
Travel Guide 2000. Intl Specialized Book Service, 2000.
leader maintains Jewish roots in Jamaica” by Moura Wolpert
Jewish Cemetery Project-Jamaica
of the Jews of the Caribbean” by Ralph G. Bennett
Kadosh Neveh Shalom: Holy Congregation Dwelling Place of Peace”
Jews in Jamaica” by Dr. Rebecca Tortello
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