I finally made it to my first sand-floored Caribbean synagogue! Originally constructed in 1885, and then rebuilt in 1912, Sha’are Shalom delights with an absolutely stunning edifice and sanctuary. It is the most recent synagogue in Jamaica, after a long list of earlier buildings from around the island.
People are usually surprised to learn that Jamaica has twenty-one Jewish cemeteries! Jewish (Sephardi) settlement there dates back to the 1600s and was particularly vibrant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during the heyday of sugar and other Caribbean raw goods production. Jamaica was an important British Caribbean colony (Kingston has a very large deep water protected port). Jamaican Jewry therefore developed as an outgrowth of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. In certain ways, New York’s much smaller colonial era congregation, Shearith Israel, was a satellite community of Jamaica’s Jewish community during colonial time. At its height, there were over a thousand Jews in Jamaica, including Jewish schools, rabbis and other religious functionaries. Several Jamaican congregations developed over time. The most prominent was in Port Royal until the city mostly sunk during an earthquake in the late 1600s. The central hub then moved to Spanish Town, and then eventually to Kingston in the mid-nineteenth century.
I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Kingston with community activist Ainsley Cohen Henriques. He so kindly spent an entire day with me, showing me around Kingston, welcoming me into his lovely Jamaican home, introducing me to his family, discussing Jamaica, and talking with me about all things ‘Spanish Portuguese.’ His family has been in Jamaica for centuries and he is incredibly devoted to preserving Jamaica’s Jewish past (and present), including its cemeteries, synagogues and archives. He even created a museum next to the synagogue to teach locals and visitors about it, and it doubles as a lovely community gathering space for kiddushim and community events.
The present day congregation, The United Congregation of Israelites, maintains a reformed version of the S&P rite and has about two hundred members. They love welcoming visitors to the community, advising them on how best to tour the area, and even how to find kosher food. Inquiries can be made through their website or by contacting Ainsley directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in helping to preserve and catalogue their cemeteries should contact architect Rachel Frankel at RachelArch@aol.com who leads week-long expeditions at different times throughout the year. I certainty look forward to returning to Jamaica to learn more about it and to see more of its fascinating Jewish heritage.