Travel | In Jamaica, add Jewish history to rum-and-reggae itinerary

It’s not easy to find Jamaica’s oldest Jewish cemetery. It’s located in Hunts Bay, on Kingston’s waterfront, across the street from the factory where Red Stripe beer is made. A car or minibus can take you only so far along an unpaved, shanty-lined road. You’ve got to continue a short distance farther by foot along a mud path through a sun-scorched field to reach the cemetery.

Ainsley Henriques cleans off inscription on grave in Hunts Bay cemetery in Kingston as groundskeeper Rocky Gilroy looks on. photo/renee ghert-zand

If not for Ainsley Henriques, the cemetery would not be accessible at all. A leader of Jamaica’s small Jewish community and an avid genealogist, he personally employs groundskeepers and makes sure the graveyard is maintained. Until Henriques took action, the graves, some dating back to the 17th century and marked with large slab stones decorated with skull and crossbones, had been abandoned and covered by overgrown brush for decades, if not centuries.

“They used to bring the bodies across the harbor from Port Royal [known as the Pirate Capital] for burial here,” Henriques explained to a group of visiting American Jewish journalists. Then he pointed out the earliest grave in the cemetery. It belongs to Abraham Gabay, son of Jacob, who died in 1672.

Henriques, 75, relishes the opportunity to show the cemetery and other historical Jewish sites to visitors. He is working with the Jamaica Tourist Board to create organized Jewish heritage tours. He thinks it’s high time for Jewish visitors to venture beyond the beachfront resorts and cruise ship day trips to typical tourist attractions. A trip to Jamaica can mean listening to reggae music and sipping rum punch by the pool, but it also can include a foray into Jamaica’s rich 350-year-old Jewish history and a chance to meet some of the 200 Jews who are still living in the island nation.

The best way to get to know members of Jamaica’s tiny Jewish community is to attend Shabbat services at the only functioning synagogue, Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Kingston, the nation’s capital. When Sha’are Shalom was formed in 1921 with the uniting of several Sephardi and Ashkenazi congregations, there were 1,500 Jews living in Jamaica.

By then, the Jewish population was concentrated in Kingston, but for hundreds of years before that, Jews lived in towns throughout the island. They established several synagogues, and at one point there were 21 Jewish functioning cemeteries. (Two are still in use; in addition to the cemetery in Hunts Bay, it is possible to visit another historical one in Falmouth, not far from the tourist resorts of Montego Bay.)

In 1700, there were more Jews in Spanish Town than in all of North America, and by 1730, Jews represented 12 percent of the white population of Jamaica. In the 18th century, Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from England and Germany, joining the Sephardi Jews who had begun to arrive a century earlier. In the early 20th century, some Jews came to Jamaica after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Exterior of the Sha’are Shalom synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica photo/elie klein

They started out as shopkeepers and artisans, and then went on to prosper either as plantation owners or international traders in the port cities. “The Jews modernized the sugar industry,” said Henriques, who is a descendant of a Spanish-Portuguese Hebrew teacher who arrived from Amsterdam in 1745.

Sha’are Shalom’s building, erected in 1912, is striking. It is one of only five existing sand-floor synagogues in the world. Four are located in the Caribbean, and the fifth one, the “Esnoga,” is in Amsterdam and considered the “mother synagogue” of Spanish-Portuguese Jewry.

There are various explanations for why these synagogues have sand floors. The practice is commonly held to stem from 17th-century Spanish-Portuguese Con-versos (forced converts) in Brazil. They decided to return to Judaism but had to practice in secret because of Iberian rule. They met in private homes and put clay and sand on the floor of the prayer rooms to muffle the sound of their prayers and comings and goings.

At one end of the synagogue the aron kodesh, or holy ark, houses 13 Torah scrolls behind its three tall, heavy wooden doors. As the various synagogues closed over the years around the island, all of the scrolls were transferred to Sha’are Shalom.

Rabbi Dana Kaplan, an American rabbi who arrived two years ago to provide the congregation with its first professional religious leadership in three decades, conducts services for the diverse congregation, using a uniquely Jamaican Jewish prayerbook.

The two dozen or so congregants on a Shabbat morning have different skin colors and come from different backgrounds. The cantor, Carl Estick, is a black man who descends on his mother’s side from the Mendez family, one of the first Jewish families in Jamaica. Estick’s cantorial assistant is Marie Reynolds, a Jamaican who converted to Judaism with Kaplan’s help.

“We have a chance to build something here. There is tremendous potential,” Kaplan said of the community’s future.

He agrees with Henriques that one way to strengthen the Jamaican Jewish community is to increase its ties with Jews in the U.S. and other countries. Nothing would make the two men happier than to have Jewish visitors from abroad join the congregation regularly for Shabbat.

Visitors should just be forewarned that in Kingston, there won’t be any bagels, lox and cream cheese. It’s more likely that traditional Jamaican dishes like callaloo (a leaf vegetable) and ackee and saltfish will be served up after the Kiddush and hamotzi are recited.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.