In Jamaica, Add Jewish History to Rum-and-Reggae Itinerary

This article was first published in JWeekly.

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

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

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.

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.

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© 2014 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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