Jamaican Jews

Diana Cooper-Clark

Thank you all for your responses to my e-mail on Jamaican Jews. There is indeed an old and vital Jewish community in Jamaica. Unfortunately, it is dying out due to intermarriage, immigration etc. Jews have been in Jamaica for almost 500 years. The earliest community was Sephardic, many of whom came from Portugal during the time of the Inquisition. Later in the 19th century mostly Ashkenazy Jews came to Jamaica. There was more than one synagogue in Jamaica but now there is only one, Shaare Shalom. There has been no rabbi for several years but there is a spiritual leader, Ernest de Souza.

Excavation Work is also being done to restore the synagogue in Spanish Town. For almost 300 years the Jewish community maintained its legacy solidly. In the 19th century the unravelling began. In part this was because of the greater integration into the community and less discrimination against Jews. In 1831 the Jews got the vote, one year after Free Blacks. They also were courted finally by the white Christian plantocracy that had restrained Jewish participation in the public sphere. These two groups united against the rising black power. Jews were encouraged by their Christian friends to lose their 'foreign' ways. But the community was always buttressed by a clear sense of its Jewishness, the many Jewish organizations which still exist, such as Hillel school and the Jewish Ladies Organization.

There are a number of Jewish cemeteries all over the island. I know Jamaican Jews who never went to synagogue but who wanted a Jewish burial and always considered themselves Jews. I will give you a personal anecdote to illustrate my point. I am Jamaican myself but I am not Jewish. When I was born my parents who were Christian chose two Jews to be my godparents. My godfather was married to an Anglican and my godmother was married to a Roman Catholic. Yet it would never have occurred to my parents not to have these two dear people as their first child's spiritual parents because they were Jewish. When I was a child my godfather, Frankie Solomon would walk me through the streets of Kingston on High Holy Days to the synagogue. The synagogue by the way has the sand on the floor still and is very beautiful. We didn't know that there was an alternative point of view about Jews marrying non-Jews and participating in Christian rituals until we came to Canada. Sometimes in one family, some of the children would be Christian and some would be Jewish.

Obviously this is all very complex and must sound a bit strange to North Americans. There were thousands of Jews in Jamaica and now there is less than 500. I want desperately to do what I can in my book to help to preserve that legacy in all of its details and give a voice to a group who have been largely unknown outside of the island. Most people I talk to are surprised that there are Jews in Jamaica and have been an essential part of that island's history.