By Ainsley Henriques
Jamaica’s historic Jewish communities are today represented by the United Congregation of Israelites, Congregation Kahal Kadosh Shaare Shalom, the Gates of Peace.
It is because when the English captured Jamaica in 1655 from the Spanish they found people there who may have been Marranos but must certainly have been Conversos. Interestingly, whilst no Jews were allowed in the Spanish New World, Jamaica, belonging to the Colףn family, seemed to shut its eyes at Conversos. There is evidence that they were involved with the introduction of Sugar Cane and the making of Sugar from as far back as 1512, produced by the “Portugals” that were sent to Jamaica.
Why historic? It is because the British colonizers from as early as 1655 did nothing to expel or limit the Jews to visit and settle the island. As a result the Jewish population flourished and before the end of the 17th century a small synagogue was established in the infamous town of Port Royal. After the devastating earthquake of 1692 the Jews purchased a plot in the old Spanish capital and the then Jamaican capital of Spanish Town to establish a new house of worship. The synagogue Neveh Shalom was built by the beginning of the 18th century “in the style of the recently completed Bevis Marks synagogue” (London, England). The Spanish Town community was expanded by the formation of the congregation Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel who built their own synagogue in 1796. These congregations flourished for over 100 years until the capital of the island was moved to Kingston in 1872. There were already growing congregations of Sephardim from 1750 and Ashkenazim in Kingston and these expanded. Much of this story has been captured in “The History of the Portuguese Jews of Jamaica,” published in 2000.
Today many of the island’s leading professionals, businessmen and leaders generally can trace Jewish ancestry in their genealogy. Jamaican Jewish families today can trace their ancestry to the older congregations of Amsterdam and London as well as to their later American connections. Not only has this link of culture and heritage contributed to the present but the past is full of the contributions of the Jamaican Jews to the islands rich history. In the fields of Poetry and Literature, in business and commerce generally, in manufacturing and farming, in art and music, Jamaican Jewish contributions have been outstanding. Since the removal of civil disabilities in 1832, Jews began to play a role in the public life of the island, a role that has continued to the present. They have been in the legislature, in the justice system, in elected political office, Ambassadors and Ministers of Government.
The congregations came together finally in 1921 as the United Congregation of Israelites as noted above. Today the congregation still maintains the Synagogue, one of the few in the world with sand on its floor, designed and built in the traditional Sephardic style by the Jamaican Jew, Rudolph Daniel Cohen Henriques, and his brothers. The congregation sponsored and is still responsible for the Hillel Academy, a private preparatory and secondary school open to all denominations, in Kingston. They also maintain a Jewish home for the aged and less fortunate members of the community. Services and Religion school continue but the congregation is without a Rabbi at the present time.