The Miami Herald
September 10, 1999

 In Jamaica, a dwindling Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashana

 KINGSTON, Jamaica -- (AP) -- The well-tended synagogue, with its triangular
 wooden roof, cement turrets and Hebrew inscriptions, seems as out of place
 among the crumbling blocks of decaying Kingston as the dwindling community it

 By the dozen, they'll make their way here tonight for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish
 New Year, an annual reaffirmation that the 500-year-old Jewish community of
 Jamaica, almost invisible now in an overwhelmingly black and Christian land,
 goes on.

 ``We've probably got a generation or two before it becomes a crisis situation,''
 said Ernest de Souza, 52, who assumed the mantle of spiritual leader since the
 last ordained rabbi left in 1978.

 He may be optimistic.

 The community, which numbered more than 2,000 a century ago, is down to a
 tenth of that, and disappearing fast. The young are leaving -- to the United States
 and Britain, mostly. One recent Sabbath, only nine elderly people came to
 services. A minyan of 10 men is required for Jewish prayer services.

 The High Holidays -- Rosh Hashana and 10 days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of
 Atonement -- are the only time when a significant number, perhaps 70, still gather
 at the 100-seat Shaare Shalom synagogue, built in 1888. The name means Gates
 of Peace.

 The Jewish community is relatively wealthy -- many have private businesses,
 including some of the biggest companies in a country where whites enjoy a
 disproportionate amount of economic power -- and the synagogue is maintained
 with their donations.

 Jews came to Jamaica with settlers in the early 16th century. Many were
 Marranos from Spain -- Jews who had converted to Christianity during the
 Inquisition but practiced Judaism in secret.

 The Kingston temple is one of a handful in the world that covers its floor in sand --
 a tradition dating to the time when Marranos needed to muffle the sound of
 footsteps to avoid detection.

 According to legend, the original Jamaican Jews helped sabotage the Spanish
 defense when the British invaded in 1655. There is no hard evidence to back this
 up -- but proponents note the British allowed the Jews to stay and gave them
 religious freedom.

 Under British rule, Jewish communities blossomed across Jamaica and there
 were at least eight synagogues in the mid-1800s. There were infusions of northern
 European Ashkenazi Jews, but the core remains Sephardic: Spanish names like
 de Leon and de Cordova predominate.

 During colonial days, Jews formed the core of the merchant class here. In 1849,
 eight of the 47 members of the colonial assembly were Jewish, including the
 speaker. That year, the assembly decided to not meet on Yom Kippur, becoming
 the first modern legislative body to do so. Jamaica's venerable Gleaner newspaper
 was founded in 1834 by the Jewish de Cordova brothers, and Jamaica's first
 ambassador to the United States, Neville Noel Ashenheim, was Jewish.

 Today, despite some resentment of whites in general, overtly anti-Semitic acts
 are extremely rare here.

 Ainsley Henriques, scion of a prominent Jewish family and the former head of the
 National Heritage Trust, is making a last-ditch effort to preserve the community's
 history through his Jamaica Jewish Genealogical Institute.

 In a ramshackle home office crammed with books and files, Henriques, 61, tracks
 down distant Jewish relatives in places like Panama and Venezuela, compiling
 family trees for the community.

 For his own family, he found links to prominent Sephardis in the United States,
 including early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.

 ``I'm doing this for my daughters, so they know where they came from,'' Henriques
 said. ``Who knows if there will be anyone to tell them their history after I pass

 Henriques' daughters have left -- one lives in Boston, another in Syracuse, N.Y.,
 and a third just moved from London to Tokyo.

 Prospects for raising a Jewish family are so thin that the young who stay tend to

 Vicky Pair's daughter Janis, 16, is still here, but perhaps not for long. ``I don't see
 any nice men for her to marry here,'' sighed the 46-year-old Pair. ``She's better off
 in America.''