09/17/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Out of Many, One Synagogue

When we host visitors at the Kingston synagogue, one of the questions they almost always ask is if there were ever other synagogues on the island. They are amazed to hear that there were several other Jewish houses of worship and more than twenty different communities in various towns throughout Jamaica. While our Jewish congregation is the only active one of its kind in Jamaica presently (and this has been the case for a long time), there had been quite a few other congregations in previous periods.

When the British drove the Spanish out of its borders in 1655, an unknown number of "Portugals" settled in Jamaica. Many all of them were Conversos, and the majority were interested in observing their ancestral faith. New immigration from Europe increased drastically thereafter because it became known that identifying Jews could settle in Jamaica in peace.

In 1684, the Jews of Jamaica received permission from Lieutenant Governor Colonel Hender Molesworth to build a synagogue in Port Royal, which they called Neve Tsedek. During its zenith in the latter half of the 17th century, Port Royal was a wild place where privateers, captains of independent ships that had been issued letters of marque by the Dutch or British governments to seize Spanish vessels as part of a legitimate war effort, rested between sea voyages. Later, those governments abandoned the practice and the same ship captains became known as pirates.

After a colossal earthquake shook Jamaica 1692, inhabitants left Port Royal in droves. This recurred after a 1704 fire, and again after another big fire in 1815. Following these catastrophes, many of the survivors settled in Spanish Town, the center of trade and the seat of government.

The first synagogue in Spanish Town, Neveh Shalom, was founded on the corner of Munk and Adelaide Street in 1692, and the building was consecrated in 1704. The synagogue was constructed as the replica of the Bevis Marks synagogue in London, which was apparently where many of the worshippers had attended before immigrating to Jamaica. This particular synagogue building was used for almost 140 years.

In 1844, the synagogue building was already showing signs of decay. The House of Assembly approved £400 pounds for repairs in 1844, £150 toward the support of a pastor and for religious education in 1847, and £200 more for further repairs in 1863. The congregation closed down in 1900 and its five Torah scrolls were passed on to the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Kingston. (We have thirteen Torah scrolls in our ark, plus one in our museum, and I have not been able to find any documents that might help to identify which five are gifts from Neveh Shalom.)

The English and German congregation of Spanish Town was built in 1796 on Young Street. The land was given by Moses Adolphus, Jr., who also donated £200 towards the construction of the building. From 1844, the two synagogues in Spanish Town shared rabbis, and they eventually started rotating services between the two buildings. The English and German synagogue became semi-derelict in the 1860s and the building was torn down in 1895. (Their Torah scrolls were given to Neveh Shalom and included in the later donation to our synagogue in Kingston.)

Most of the Jews in Spanish Town moved to Kingston while others moved out of Jamaica.

A Spanish Portuguese congregation was established in Kingston in 1692. According to Jacob Andrade, it was called Shaare HaShamayim. However, it is not known if the congregation had a building.

In 1744, two lots of land were purchased at the corner of Princess Street and Water Lane for £480. The land hand been part of the estate of Daniel Dickens and had been sold to a carpenter named James Kerr who then sold it to the synagogue through Daniel Mendes DaCosta, Benjamin Dias Fernandez and Aaron Lamiera.

The synagogue had a seating capacity of five hundred and included a gallery for women. The interior of the synagogue was lit by seven brass lamps suspended from the ceiling, with each lamp having the name of its donor engraved around its base. Crimson carpets adorned the raised podiums and sand covered the floor.

The Spanish Portuguese synagogue on Princess Street was destroyed by fire in 1882, and another synagogue was built at 58 East Street to replace it. This second synagogue retained the name "the Princess Street synagogue" to indicate its roots in the previous one.

The English and German synagogue was founded in Kingston in 1787 and was given the name Shaangare Yosher. In 1837, the synagogue knocked down their original building and constructed a much larger one on the same plot of land. In 1864, they bought the adjoining land to further extend both the building itself and the property.

In 1882, both the Spanish Portuguese synagogue and the English and German synagogue were destroyed by fire. In the aftermath of this fire, the two Jewish communities began negotiating a merger. A powerful faction within the Spanish Portuguese community did not want to amalgamate and built a new synagogue on East Street in 1884. The group of German Jews, on the other hand, decided to repair their synagogue on Orange Street synagogue, and reconsecrated it in 1894.

Those who were interested in merging the communities formed The Amalgamated Congregation, and laid the cornerstone for their new synagogue on August 17, 1885. The building was consecrated on July 18, 1888.

On January 14, 1907, a tremendous earthquake destroyed most of the city of Kingston, including the synagogue buildings. A new synagogue, Shaare Shalom, was dedicated on March 28, 1913. In 1921, the English and German congregation finally agreed to merge into the Amalgamated Congregation, and the larger synagogue became known as the United Congregation of Israelites.

The Amalgamated Congregation underwent a gradual process of reform, a phase of gradual liberalization. For example, they had reaffirmed that they were to practice an Orthodox form of worship as late as 1883 but the directors approved the use of an organ and the signing of English hymns in 1910. But the reasons for ritual reform and the meaning attached to it was never entirely clear. While some of the leaders understood what they wanted to achieve in ideological terms, others felt that they were simply accommodating a changing social reality.

Beginning in 1921, Shaare Shalom was the only remaining synagogue in Jamaica. Many years later, the building remains virtually unchanged. The congregation, however, is much smaller than it ever had been. In 1885, the congregation boasted 2,000 members; in 2014, only about 150 individuals identify with the synagogue, including some who reside overseas and many who are inactive.

A root cause in the decline of the Jamaican Jewish population was the rise to power of Prime Minister Michael Manley in 1972. Manley was rumored to be preparing the country for a communist revolution, similar to that of Cuba. The rumors spread quickly and the business climate soured. Residents could no longer afford the comfortable lives they had become accustomed to. In fact, it became increasingly difficult to find even basic commodities at most supermarkets.

In the eight years that Manley was in power, the Jewish community shrunk by 70-80%.

Other contributing factors included constant emigration and high assimilation rates. Jamaica was an open society and Jews were able to mingle with every other social group. As such, many simply lost interest and slowly faded out of the community over the years. Others intermarried and left more abruptly.

There has never been a tradition of welcoming converts into Spanish Portuguese congregations and older members can recall only two conversions: one performed by Rabbi Henry Silverman who led the congregation between 1935-1965, and a second by Rabbi Bernard Hooker, who led the congregation between 1966-1975. Because it was not considered a viable option under most circumstances those who were faced with tough choices about future spouses simply left the religion.

Though many Jewish Jamaicans have moved on or faded into the crowd, there is still a dedicated core who believe in the strength of the community. Indeed, our community has the various types of resources necessary to recreate itself and launch and brilliant new phase in its long and venerable history.