Bermuda Virtual Jewish History Tour
Historically, few Jews moved to Bermuda because of the harsh policies of the English toward Jews on the island in the 18th century. There is one place on the island, Jews Bay, which proves Jewish origins in Bermuda. The name of the bay dates back to the early 1600s, and is considered to be named after a group of Jews who did business on the island. A Jewish congregation was formally established in the 20th century in the capital of Hamilton.
In 1694, the law “An Act Laying an Imposition on all Jews, and reputed Jews, Trading or Merchandising on These Islands” levied a five pound tax on any Jew attempting to execute business in Bermuda. This bill declared that Jews “have come to and resided in these islands, and have sold and vended great quantities of goods, wares, merchandizes and commodities, and the monies thereby received and gotten do still send out and carry away from these islands into foreign and remote parts and places, to the great impoverishment, hurt and prejudice of their majesties subjects in these islands.” In 1760, the previous bill was revoked on the grounds that it was bad for Bermudian business, because Jews were taking their trade elsewhere.
From April 19-29, 1943, Bermuda hosted a conference of representatives from the Allied nations. At the Bermuda Conference the delegates discussed methods of rescuing European Jews from the Nazis. The conferece was kept secret from public attention. During the talks, the Bermuda officials avoided the topic of Jewish survivors. In the end, no concrete promises were made to help the Jews.
Following the war, many European Jews immigrated to the island, especially in the 1950s and 60s, but they were not well received by the people of Bermuda. Bermudian travel agents discriminated against Jewish travelers, often limiting the number of Jews who could travel to the island. There were even a few hotels that would not permit Jews to stay. Many Jews on the island did not declare their religion for fear of discrimination. For instance, Puisne Judge Hector Barcillon was elected to the highest Bermudian office held by a Jew, but would not disclose his religion. In 1967, Barcillion was so stirred by the Six Day War in Israel that he wrote a letter to the newspaper revealing that he was Jewish.
The Jewish Community of Bermuda (JCB) emerged as a result of a United States Naval Base situated on the island during World War II. In the past, the JCB consisted mainly of naval officers and their families. Other Jews on the island were always welcomed to join in the Services provided by the Base. In the last 20 years, the percentage of civilians to officers and their families gradually changed. In 1994, due to US budget cuts, the Base was closed. The community is now made up solely of Bermudian residents and their families, and expatriates from the US, Canada, the UK, and a dozen other countries. It is primarily a Reform/Conservative Community with a visiting Conservative Rabbi. The population of Bermuda is about 65,000. Today, the Jewish community in Bermuda numbers at about 120 members.
There is no current permanent synagogue or rabbi, but Shabbat services are hosted by various community members once monthly, typically the first Friday of the month. High Holiday services are also offered, as well as a large communal Passover Seder and a Break Fast meal for Yom Kippur. For many events, community members volunteer to lead, since our visiting Rabbi, A. Nathan Abramowitz from Washington D.C., comes to Bermuda to conduct services for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and another holiday (Purim or Shavuot). In addition to the High Holidays and Passover, the community marks the other major holidays with special community events including a Sukkot celebration, a Simchat Torah parade, a Lag B’Omer picnic, a Hanukkah dinner, and a Purim party complete with costumes and a reading of the megillah. There is also a Hebrew School for about 12 school age children meets weekly at a member’s home. A Torah Tots program for all preschool children is held on Friday afternoons. Children are also prepared for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and there is also an occasional Torah Study held on Sunday Morning.
Sources: World Jewish Congress