In Jamaica, a dwindling Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashana
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- (AP) -- The well-tended synagogue, with its
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,
New Year, an annual reaffirmation that the 500-year-old Jewish community of
Jamaica, almost invisible now in an overwhelmingly black and Christian land,
``We've probably got a generation or two before it becomes a crisis
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
The Jewish community is relatively wealthy -- many have private
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.
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
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
Under British rule, Jewish communities blossomed across Jamaica
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
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,
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
including early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.
``I'm doing this for my daughters, so they know where they came
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