23 January 2010

Jamaica: Unique Jewish heritage

Tracing the Tribe's friend Ainsley Henriques is a distant relative of a Jewish merchant from Amsterdam who arrived in Jamaica in 1670 to find Columbus' hidden treasure.

The ancestor didn't find the treasure, but the family has remained on the island for more than 300 years.

JTA's Gil Shefler wrote this story of Jamaica's Jews as he attended the island's week-long conference on the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean.

Although the story is excellent and provides insight into this unique community, I don't understand why Shefler continues to use the pejorative Marrano when he means Converso.

Ainsley Henriques, in his 70s, leads the small community and guards its history and traditions.
"I restructured the congregation, established an office, employed staff and persuaded the community to open a museum," Henriques tells JTA. "We have hundreds of school children coming in to the synagogue every week to learn aboutthe community."

Henriques teamed up with the Jamaican government to host an academic conference last week in Kingston on the history of the island's Jewish community. Participants came from around the world.

But Henriques harbors few illusions: He knows his may be a losing battle.
The community has shrunk from more than 2,500 in 1881 to only 450 in 1974. Today there are some 200, and there hasn't been a full-time rabbi for three decades.
Jamaican Jews are a subspecies of their own. A significant minority are black, the descendants of intermarriages or relationships between Jewish plantation owners and their slaves. They speak in the same unmistakable accent for which the island is famous. And like most Jamaicans -- but perhaps unlike most Jews -- they are laid back.

In downtown Kingston on Friday nights, prayers can be heard coming from the beautiful Sharei Shalom Synagogue-United Congregation of Israelites, the only remaining shul on the island. Prayers are read in English, Hebrew and Spanish -- a reminder of the community's Sephardic origins.
Sharei Shalom was constructed in 1908, on the site of one destroyed by a major earthquake. It is one of only four synagogues in the world with a sand floor.

"There are four main reasons why the floor is covered in sand," Henriques explains as he stands on the bimah. "First, to remind us that we are desert people. Second, that we may be as many as the grains of sand. Third, because it muffled the steps of our ancestors who worshiped in secret. And four -- and perhaps the most important reason -- the kids love it."
The community survived in isolation for a long time and adapted traditions to what was available. Instead of etrog (citron) on Sukkot, they used oranges. Today, writes Shefler, five etrog seedlings are growing in the garden of a community member.

Jamaica's Jews were merchants and also owned plantations, there were pirates as well as those involved in the slave trade. They've been elected to parliament and founded the biggest newspaper, The Gleaner.

There is a Hillel Academy, opened in 1969, with several hundred students - only a few are Jewish. The Jewish students study religion outside of normal classes.

While some descendants of Jews attend services regularly, assimilation and emigration have taken their toll, and Henriques feels he is fighting a losing battle. He tries to draw Jewish tourists to the island's synagogue and cemeteries, but also feels that the community may vanish, according to his estimate, in perhaps another three decades.

Read the complete story at the link above. Visit the United Congregation of Israelites website for much more information on this community.

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