A Dwindling Community

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Report.

Congregation Sha'are Shalom in Kingston, Jamaica is one of only five existing sand-floor synagogues in the world. (photo credit: Elie Klein)

Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Kingston, Jamaica is one of only five existing sand-floor synagogues in the world. (photo credit: Elie Klein)

On a hot, humid Shabbat morning in early November, Rabbi Dana Kaplan, asked the members of his synagogue, Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, about local custom regarding the opening and closing OF the three doors of the aron ha-kodesh, or holy ark.

Having arrived in the country just two years ago, Kaplan, an American rabbi ordained by the Reform Movement, is still discovering the unique history and idiosyncratic traditions of Jamaica’s only surviving Jewish congregation.

“Our practice has always been to open the middle door first when taking out the Torah, and then to close it last when returning the Torah,” one individual replied to the rabbi’s query.

“No, our custom is to both open and close the middle door first,” someone disagreed.

“The doors have always been opened and closed right to left,” a third worshiper maintained.

However trivial this disagreement about the opening of the doors of the ark might seem, it is indicative of the lack of consensus among Jamaica’s remaining 200 Jews – about some aspects of the community’s past, but more importantly, about the direction it should take now and in the future. With dwindling numbers and the possible disappearance of a proud three-and-half-century-old heritage at stake, there is much more to worry about than synagogue choreography.

While sorting out the congregation’s internal differences, its members are also looking outside Jamaica for help in shoring up their community. With most of the Jewish community’s members economically comfortable, the support they seek is not financial, but rather mostly in terms of interest from Jews from other countries.

A number of Jamaican Jews, including community leader and Jewish Jamaican genealogist Ainsley Henriques, are trying to make their country a Jewish tourism destination. Collaborating with the Jamaica Tourist Board and the Finn Partners public relations firm, they hope to develop travel packages that will draw Jewish vacationers off the cruise ships and resort beaches to visit the synagogue, historic Jewish cemeteries in Kingston and Falmouth, and other Jewish points of interest.

Located on Duke Street, in what is now the older, more run-down part of Kingston where Jews no longer live, Sha’are Shalom is an impressive structure. Its most striking feature is its sand floor. In fact, Sha’are Shalom is one of only five existing sand-floor synagogues worldwide. Four are located in the Caribbean, and the fifth one, the Esnoga, is in Amsterdam and is considered the “mother synagogue” of Spanish-Portuguese Jewry.

There are various explanations why these synagogues have sand floors. “The most common explanation, however, is that the practice originated in the early 1600s in northern Brazil, where Spanish-Portuguese conversos [forced converts] who had returned to Judaism were trying to retain their ancestors’ traditions while subject to the hostile eyes of Iberian ecclesiastical authorities,” wrote Kaplan in an article in Haaretz.

“Because synagogues were not permitted to operate, the conversos who were still committed to practicing Judaism had no choice but to meet in private homes. Though these gatherings were an open secret, the Jewish community felt it was better to be as discreet as possible. As such, they put clay and sand on the floor of the prayer rooms to muffle the sounds made by the comings and goings of worshipers, and the prayers themselves.”

Built in 1912, Sha’are Shalom is the last in a line of synagogues that were once found in towns and cities around Jamaica, going back to the first one established in 1692 in Port Royal, the pirate capital. Sha’are Shalom’s aron ha-kodesh houses 13 Torah scrolls, many of them collected from those now-defunct congregations.

Crypto Jews are believed to have arrived in Jamaica as early as 1534. With the British conquest of the Island in 1655, Jews were allowed to settle with no restriction on their religious practice. As Jamaica’s economic fortunes grew, more Sephardi Jews arrived from Holland, England, France and the New World.

By 1700, there were more Jews in Spanish Town, Jamaica, than in all of North America; and by 1730, Jews represented 12 percent of the white population of Jamaica. By this time, Ashkenazi Jews began arriving from England and Germany, and they founded their own congregations.

The remainder of this article can be read in the January 13, 2014 issue of The Jerusalem Report. No online version exists at this time.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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