According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, Next to Christianity, the oldest religions practiced in Jamaica is Judaism, the Jewish Business News reports.
The arrival of Jews on the island dates as far back as 1530. As many as eight synagogues were erected in Kingston, Port Royal, Spanish Town and Montego Bay between the 1600s and 1800s—all destroyed by hurricanes, fire, or earthquakes, and those that survived were eventually abandoned.
In 1800 Jamaica boasted nearly 2,500 Jews but today the number of Jews in Jamaica is about 200, according to an AP report, most of them older than 50, with a single Reform synagogue, Sha’are Shalom, located at 92 Duke Street.
A number of Israeli families have relocated to Jamaica for work, but do not plan to stay. They have not cultivated good relations with the local Jews.
Shaare Shalom Synagogue is one of five functioning synagogues with sand floors in the world. It’s also the third oldest synagogue in the Caribbean, built by a collaboration of the Ashkenazi the Sephardi communities on the island.
Two lights are burning on either side of the Synagogue’s mahogany Ark, which the tourism board says symbolize the united effort by what is known nowadays as the United Congregation of Israelites.
Inside the Ark there are 13 Torah scrolls collected from abandoned Jamaican synagogues, some of them more than 200 years old.
According to AP, the Jamaica Tourist Board website offers a “Jewish Jamaica” travel, heritage tourism attempting to attract family celebrations like weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs that would inevitably culminate on the island’s pristine beaches.
Anna Ruth Henriques, a Jamaican Jewish woman who was raised by the Caribbean’s leading Jewish historian, Ainsley Henriques, whose family has resided in Jamaica for over 400 years, conducts the Jamaica Jewish Tours, offering “Personalized private tours through the eyes and heart of 10th generation Jamaican Jew.” She divides her time between two islands—Jamaica and Manhattan, where she designs jewelry, paints, writes and raises her daughter,
Ainsley Henriques himself, 76, and his younger cousin Stephen Henriques, who leads religious services in Sha’are Shalom, are very active in preserving what’s left of the Jewish community of Jamaica.
And the most logical resource for keeping the community alive in the face of the cruel passage of time is tourism.
“Regardless of what happens in the future, I want people to always know that Jews were indeed here,” Ainsley Henriques told AP.
“I restructured the congregation, established an office, employed staff and persuaded the community to open a museum,” Henriques told Ha’aretz back in 2010. “We have hundreds of school children coming in to the synagogue every week to learn about the community.”
The biggest problem Henriques et al are facing is its location, in Kingston. For one thing, it’s very far from Jamaica’s pristine beaches. So that the lovely notion of celebrating your child’s bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah and then hitting the beach would, in reality, mean celebration, then a 4-hour drive, then, finally the beach.
The other problem is the truly alarming violent crime rate plaguing Jamaica.
Kingston, Montego Bay and Spanish Town experience high levels of crime and violence. In 2005, Jamaica had 1,674 murders, or a 58 murders per 100,000 people. That year, Jamaica had the highest murder rate in the world.
Since then, the murder rate in Jamaica continues to hover around 1,500 each year. Many of the cases are related to the drug trade, and is mostly Jamaican on Jamaican, but in Kingston, where the foreign embassies are located, there are many reports of armed robberies and murders targeting foreign nationals.
Homosexuals are singled out for violent attacks in Jamaica, which has anti-sodomy laws on the books. According to reports, Jamaican police is lax in protecting homosexuals.