Community in Jamaica - World Jewish Congress

Jamaica

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Jamaica is home to between 200 and 400 Jews. The Jamaican Jewish community is ethnically diverse, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent, and from a variety of countries of origin. Though small in number, it is a highly respected minority group in Jamaica. The Jewish community in Jamaica is represented by the United Congregation of Israelites – the Jamaican affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

United Congregation of Israelites – Shaare Shalom Synagogue

Telephone: 809 927 7948
Fax: 809 978 6240
Website: http://www.ucija.org/

President: Ainsley Henriques 



History

The presence of Jews in Jamaica can be traced back to the island’s early days as a Spanish colony. A number of Portuguese Crypto-Jews fleeing the Inquisition began arriving on the island around 1530 and settled in Spanish Town. The Inquisition was not allowed to operate in the new colony of Jamaica, enabling these settlers to practice Judaism, albeit only in secret, but without fear of being tortured or worse. The Jamaican Jewish poet Daniel Lopes Laguna came to the island in the 1660s after escaping from imprisonment by the Inquisition.

In 1665, the British gained control of Jamaica and shortly thereafter permitted Jews to worship in public and later granted them citizenship. An influx of Jewish immigration (mainly Sephardic) to Jamaica from England, Brazil, and other South American colonies followed, and Jewish life began to take off in Jamaica with the development of synagogues, Jewish schools, and Jewish markets. Interestingly, there were some Jewish pirates of Sephardic origin, such as Moses Cohen Henriques, marauding the Caribbean and particularly Port Royal, Jamaica during this time.

However, the non-Jewish citizens of Jamaica petitioned British authorities to expel Jews from the island in 1671. Though this was not enacted, anti-Jewish sentiments persisted in Jamaica and a series of anti-Jewish measures were implemented. In 1693, the island’s officials imposed a special tax on the Jewish community and by the turn of the century, they were considered second-class citizens in Jamaica due to their status as “Jews.” They were forbidden from using Christian servants, required to work on the Sabbath, and were later prohibited from holding public office. Yet, despite such barriers, the Jamaican Jewish community continued to thrive, increasing in population and commercial success. Jamaican Jews were particularly influential in the sugar and vanilla industries and began to play a leading role in the country’s foreign trade and shipping enterprises. Jewish immigration at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century from Curaçao and Germany further bolstered the community.

Though Jewish immigration subsided for the time being, the Jewish community in Jamaica was quite successful in the early 19th century, despite its official legal status. Isaac Mendes Belisario, considered the first Jamaican artist, was of Jewish origin and began working during this period, taking a Jamaican-oriented approach to his work. In 1831, Jews on the island were granted full political rights and equal legal status, allowing them to vote in elections and attain property. Brothers Jacob and Joshua de Cordova founded the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper in 1834. By 1949, Jamaica had a notable Jewish political presence, with eight Jewish members of the House of the Assembly, including the Speaker of the House. The House even adjourned for Yom Kippur at one point.

At the turn of the 20th century, Jews from Syria, Egypt, and Germany arrived in Jamaica. However, Jewish life in Jamaica began to take a downturn, as emigration and assimilation began to reduce the practicing population of Jews in Jamaica. As the economic prosperity that the community had experienced in the previous century began to falter, many Jamaican Jews began to leave the island for countries such as England and the United States. As a result of this decline, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues were eventually forced to merge in 1921.

Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, and many Jews began to leave Jamaica due to the political unrest that rocked the island in the 1970s. Today, Jamaican Jewry is small and concentrated. It is estimated that nearly 424,000 Jamaicans are descendants of the Sephardic Jewish immigrants who came to the island throughout its history.

The years of the Holocaust

In the years before and during the Holocaust, Jamaica became a haven for almost 1,400 Polish and Dutch Jewish refugees. The American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) became aware of space in the Gibraltar Camp that the British had constructed for the arrival of Gibraltarian and Maltese citizens evacuated during the war and soon lobbied the British to accept some Jewish refugees from Europe. Likewise, the Dutch government-in-exile requested that the British temporarily allow Dutch Jews en route to Curaçao. The British agreed to both appeals and began admitting Jewish refugees in 1938.

On arrival, Jewish immigrants from Europe were screened to ensure that they were not Axis spies and then placed in the Gibraltar internment camp. It was understood that their admittance into Jamaica was to be for a temporary period and that the Jewish arrivals needed to be able to pay their way for at least a year (there was to be no cost incurred by the British crown). The JDC financed almost the entire operation. The Jews who did arrive in Jamaica and were placed in the Gibraltar internment camps were prohibited from looking for jobs while in the country and were not given self-determination. Almost all admitted during this period later left for the United States, England, Holland, South America, and other South American countries.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that as of 2010, between 200 and 400 Jews lived in Jamaica. The majority of them live in Kingston.

Community Life

The United Congregation of Israelites acts as the central Jewish communal body in Jamaica, working to ensure that Jewish life in Jamaica is well structured and supported, and that Jamaican Jews have representation. Despite its small size, the Jamaican Jewish community has several Jewish communal organizations operating on the island, including chapters of WIZO and B’nai B’rith, a home for the elderly, and the Neveh Shalom Institute, who works to protect historical Jewish remains that date back to Colonial Jamaica.

Religious and Cultural life

There is only one functioning synagogue in Jamaica, the Shaarei Shalom Synagogue, which follows a fusion of Sephardi-Ashkenazi rites. The community was recently led in prayer by Rabbi Dana Kaplan, who shifted Jamaican Jewry towards a more Reform tradition. There is also a Chabad that operates out of Kingston.

Kosher food can be found in Kingston, largely through the Chabad.

Jewish Education

The United Congregation of Israelites runs a Jewish day school, the Hillel Academy, that includes both elementary and high school levels as well as a Hebrew School.

Youth

There are some Jewish youth-oriented activities offered by both the United Congregation of Israelites and the Chabad.

Information for visitors

There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Jamaica, including the ruins of synagogues throughout the country in cities such as Kingston, Spanish Town, Port Royal, and Montego Bay. The ruins of Jewish owned rum distilleries and plantations are also of interest, as are the nearly 21 Jewish cemeteries across the island.

Israel

Israel and Jamaica have maintained full diplomatic relations since Jamaican independence in 1962. Israel is represented by its ambassador in Santo Domingo.

Embassy of Israel in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Pedro Henriquez Urena 80
Apartado Postal 1404, Santo Domingo

Telephone: (+1 809) 920 1500
Fax: (+1 809) 472 1785

Updated

August 2018

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