Jamaican Jews? C’mon Mon

September 12, 2013
BY David Snyder
Island nation boasts somewhat hidden yet tightknit Jewish community
Shaare Shalom Synagogue, with its sand-covered floors, is Jamaica’s only shul and has fewer than 200 members.

Shaare Shalom Synagogue, with its sand-covered floors, is Jamaica’s only shul and has fewer than 200 members.

When New York resident and Pikesville native Perry Katz traveled to Jamaica for a vacation last December, he spent five days relaxing on its beaches and enjoying tropical beverages amid the country’s tourism-laden north coast.

He was completely unaware that about three-and-a-half hours south, in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, there exists an intimate Jewish community that boasts more than 300 years of rich tradition.

To lifelong Kingston resident Ainsley Henriques, whose ancestors settled in the Caribbean nation around 250 years ago, Katz is not the exception. Most people, Jews included, have no idea that a Jewish population in Jamaica even exists.

Henriques, Jamaica’s honorary consul to Israel (the country does not have an Israeli ambassador), said when people are informed of the island’s Jewish nook, the reactions he receives are usually quite similar.

“They are surprised,” said Henriques, 74. “The Jamaican Jewish community has never been overtly active in telling its story anywhere. … The world has sort of woken up to the idea that Jews actually did — and do — live in Jamaica.”

The landmark cornerstones of Kingston’s Jewish footprint are its Shaare Shalom Synagogue — the country’s only shul — and its adjacent Jewish Heritage Center.

Erected a little more than 100 years ago, the synagogue is a pearly white structure with one main prayer room that seats around 350 people. Its most discernable feature is the sand that comprises its floor — it’s one of five synagogues worldwide to lay claim to this amenity.

“You can wear sandals to synagogue and get sand in your toes,” Henriques said.

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Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston (pictured) and its adjacent
Jewish Heritage Center reflect Jamaica’s storied Jewish history.

Some 30 feet away, the heritage center contains posters on the wall that document Jamaica’s Jewish history. It also displays items used over the course of the year such as tefillin, one of its 13 Torahs and a shofar.

For Henriques, however, the main challenge is not just getting Jews worldwide to fathom Jamaica’s Judaism, it’s also ensuring that the unique community — comprised of a diverse variety of denominations and backgrounds — sustains long after his generation is gone. Currently, Shaare Shalom has fewer than 200 members, and it struggles to retain individuals from the younger age brackets.

“I can’t tell you,” said Henriques, when asked about the community’s long-term future. “My only hope is that it [continues] as a long as I am alive.”

Part of the issue lies in the reality that when many Jamaican Jews leave to study abroad, they never return, instead opting to pursue job opportunities and set up their lives in other countries. It’s an ironic problem, considering that it was economic opportunity and freedom that led Jews to settle in Jamaica in the 1600s and 1700s.

The difficulty is exemplified in David Matalon, the synagogue’s president for the last three years. Matalon has been on Shaare Shalom’s board since 1972.

“I’m about to come off because I think 40 years on the board is long enough for one person. But if I come off, my problem is, I don’t know who they are going to replace me with,” said Matalon, 63. “I’d love younger people to come on, but they don’t seem to step up to the plate.”

That’s not to say everything is doom and gloom. There are several sparks of positive development.

After going 40 years without an official spiritual leader, Shaare Shalom installed Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan two years ago. Since then, aside from one week, the congre-gation has maintained a regular weekly minyan — albeit a small one. Last Passover, around 130 people crammed into the heritage center for a community Seder. Its b’nai mitzvah program boasts about a half-dozen students, and the rabbi is also working to solidify a weekly Torah study.

One of the perks of a diminutive community is its intimacy and its openness. Shaare Shalom is a combination of Sephardic and Ashkenzic traditions simply because there wasn’t enough of a population to warrant multiple synagogues throughout the city. It’s a tightknit, amalgamated environment, almost a reflection of Jamaica itself, a relatively small country of just around three million people.

“Everybody knows everybody. Most are related to one another in some sort of way. You tend to have a pretty good idea of who’s who,” Henriques said. “If somebody new turns up we look at them and say, ‘Oh, who are you?’ [But] they are welcome as part of our Jewish community.”

David Snyder is a former JT staff reporter.

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