12 June 2009

Bermuda: Jewish history

Bermuda, now home to four Chinese Muslim Uighers released from Gitmo, also has a Jewish community dating to 1609.

The island is celebrating its 400th founding anniversary, and the Jewish community now has a building where it can conduct services, hold events and house its Hebrew School.

This development stems from the fact that the US Naval Base, situated on the island during World War II, closed in 1994 due to budget cuts. That site has been repurposed and is now what Jewish Bermudians and their families, as well as expatriates from the United States, Canada, the U.K., and a dozen other countries, use as home base for the primarily Reform/Conservative community.
Few Jews moved to the island because of English 18th century policies toward Jews. Jews Bay (marked on an early survey as Jewes Bay), proves there were Jews, and the name dates to the early 1600s.

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In 1760, the previous bill was revoked on the grounds that it was bad for Bermudian business, because Jews were taking their trade elsewhere.

In April 1943, Bermuda hosted a secret Bermuda Conference where delegates discussed methods of rescuing European Jews from the Nazis. Bermuda officials avoided the Jewish survivor topic; ultimately, no promises were made to help.

Many European Jews immigrated to the island post-WWII, but were not welcomed. Jewish travelers faced discrimination - which even limited the numbers who could travel there.

Some hotels refused to permit Jews to stay, and many who lived on the island did not publicly declare their religion. Puisne Judge Hector Barcillon held the highest office for a Jew, but he didn't reveal his religion until 1967. Emotionally stirred by Israel's Six Day War, he wrote a letter to the newspaper and disclosed the truth.

In the 20th century, a congregation was established in Hamilton.

For more resources on Bermuda:

Jewish Exponent travel article
Bermuda Tourism
Bermuda in the Jewish Virtual Library
JewishSightseeing.com - an interesting 1999 story about Jewish life.
ShalomBermuda - Growing up on Bermuda in the 1950s, with a bit more history.

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