The first thing you notice at Shaare Shalom Congregation in Kingston, Jamaica is the sand on the floor, softening the sound of your footsteps as you take your seat. You bend down and let the grains, smooth-gritty, run through your fingers. Is there some meaning in it, a reference to the 40 years the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert?
Hurricane season is in full swing, so it’s hot and humid, with occasional thunder, the tail-end of tropical storm Isaac passing by; but inside the stately chapel, it’s comfortable: The large windows of the 100-year-old building are wide open, and overhead fans keep the place airy.
There are 40 worshippers, and it’s a diverse group: Most are white, some are black, others are shades in between, as well as one of Asian descent. This feels natural for a country where most of the population is non-white, where there’s been a mingling of ethnic groups, and where marriage, or at least romance, between different races has been going on for hundreds of years.
Shaare Shalom Congregation, also known as the United Congregation of Israelites, is the last active synagogue in Jamaica. Its services seem familiar yet exotic, like the congregants themselves: a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Reform, English spoken with that distinctive Jamaican lilt, and prayers sung beautifully in Hebrew by a man and woman, both of African descent.
In the social hall next to Shaare Shalom’s sanctuary, Ainsley Henriques, 74-year-old doyen of Jamaica’s Jewish community, proudly points to an exhibition of centuries of Jamaican Jewish life. Displays show contributions made in commerce, art, politics, journalism, medicine and law.
Henriques says that nowadays, there are only about 250 people left on Jamaica who self-identify as Jews (less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the island’s population). Their numbers are dwindling, and on occasion it’s hard to put together a minyan, but Henriques and others in the community emphasize their determination to keep Judaism alive in Jamaica.
For one thing, Shaare Shalom has brought in a new rabbi, after 33 years without one. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, a 51-year-old American Reform rabbi, has ideas intended to attract younger people: a bar/bat mitzvah program, nature-adventure activities for young families, informal social gatherings for young parents. And more plans in the works.
Henriques says the community is also being revitalized by Jamaicans who have discovered their affinity to Judaism, like the two cantors: Winston Mendes Davidson, called Winty, a 66-year-old doctor and public health official who converted after learning of his Jewish roots (Mendes, his mother’s family, is a venerable Sephardic last name in Jamaica); and Marie Reynolds, who was brought up Christian and discovered her love of Judaism while living in London.
As charming and moving as Shaare Shalom is, it’s unlikely that a Jewish tourist, even an observant one, would go to Jamaica only for the Jewish sites, or would remain in Kingston — in the southern part of the island — during the whole vacation.
More likely, a typical tourist would go to the northern shore, spending time in those places whose exotic names — Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Runaway Bay — evoke images of rum drinks with little umbrellas, spectacular white-sand beaches, warm Caribbean waters, lush foliage and estates where legends like Noel Coward or Errol Flynn cavorted to their hearts’ content.
Over the years, Jamaica has gone through well-known phases. To mention a few: piracy (including Jewish pirates); the laid-back lifestyle of Negril on the western part of the island during the 1960s; and Rastafarianism, spear-headed by the late reggae icon Bob Marley.
Modern Jamaican resorts have moved well beyond those notions. The country has developed eco-tourism activities, thrilling adventures and pleasant diversions aimed at appealing to a wide range of tourists: college students, singles, families and couples of all ages.
You can take a chairlift over the treetops, steer a bobsled down Mystic Mountain (on steel rails, not ice), or glide down the rainforest canopy on a zip line.
Swimming with and getting kissed by a dolphin (no joke) may be on many people’s bucket list, especially when that dolphin is a frisky adolescent female named Misty; but much more heart-thumping is the hike up Dunn’s River Falls.
Wearing only a bathing suit and water shoes that grip the wet rocks (you can rent them there), you start at the bottom, where the waterfall empties out into the Caribbean, and climb up the slippery boulders, heading up toward the waterfall, with occasional dips or slides into deeper pools. Depending on your fitness level, it can take from a half-hour to an hour to get to the top, where you’re rewarded with a waterfall shower.
Ocho Rios tourism offers quiet moments as well: birds of exotic coloring pecking at seeds on your palm, hummingbirds with spectacularly long tails, panoramic views of the north coast.
It also offers jerk chicken and other local delicacies by the shore, in the moonlight, with other tourists as well as Jamaicans. A country that’s an island paradise for tourists and cruise-ship day-trippers is still mired in thatched-roof poverty for too many residents; but Jamaicans’ radiant smiles seem genuine and unquenchable, whatever their economic reality.
A Bob Marley lyric comes to mind: “Forget your troubles and dance. Forget your sorrows and dance. Forget your sickness and dance. Forget your weakness and dance …”
Wherever you go in Jamaica, local music is always playing, from Harry Belafonte to Toots and the Maytals to a steel-drum band. And if you start to dance, people will smile at you. They might even join you. They understand: Forget about whatever you left back home and dance.
Still, there was a mystery to be solved: the sand on Shaare Shalom’s floor.
There’s plenty of evidence that Jews have been in Jamaica since the mid-1600s. For example, the oldest of Jamaica’s Jewish cemeteries, at Hunts Bay, west of Kingston, has been explored by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, which found a gravestone with Hebrew and Portuguese writing. That gravestone is dated 1672.
But because of family lore, Jamaican Jews are certain there were Jews in Jamaica before that, as far back as the 1500s, when Spain controlled the island. Spain had brought the Inquisition to the New World, so if there were Jews in Jamaica in the 1500s, they wouldn’t have expressed their faith openly. When worshipping together, they would have quieted their footsteps.
“The sand on the synagogue floor goes back to that time,” Henriques said, “when it was important for Jews not to arouse suspicions. Once the British took over in 1655, Jews could practice their Judaism openly.”
And practice openly they did. They built synagogues and schools and a great deal more; they’ve been involved in every aspect of Jamaican life. But now, because of assimilation and intermarriage, because the core membership is aging and many Jamaican Jews have chosen to live elsewhere, the Jewish community is struggling to maintain its identity and integrity.
It’s working … for now. But who knows what lies ahead?
So after you’ve had your fill of rum drinks and spa treatments and glides over the rainforest canopy, you might want to check out Jamaica’s Jewish life while it’s still there. Like some other disappearing communities in exotic locales, it may not be around forever, mon.
Roberto Loiederman’s trip was sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board.