Once on this Island: historic synagogue restored in Barbados

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Noah Lederman—author of the memoir A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets—writes about the restoration of a historic synagogue in Barbados for Tablet Magazine. He says, “After centuries of Jewish life in Barbados, the historic synagogue is beautifully restored—but the community itself faces an uncertain future.” Here are excerpts:

Leading up to each presidential election, Americans on all sides grumble empty threats: If he wins, I’m moving to Canada. If she wins, I’m off to the Caribbean. In 2016, Neal Rechtman lost his wife; later in the year, he watched Donald Trump win the presidency. “On election night, I turned off the TV and did a Google search for Caribbean islands with a synagogue and a bridge club,” said Rechtman, a New York Jew and competitive bridge player. “Rabbi Google advised me to check out Barbados.”

Two months later, a fortnight before the inauguration, Rechtman arrived in Barbados and began his new life. Finding three bridge players was easy. Finding a 10-man minyan so he could say Kaddish for his late wife, less so.

The Barbadian (or Bajan) Jewish community is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and consists of about 50 full-time residents. But with hardly any members younger than 30 years old, the future doesn’t look so sunny. Rechtman described it as a “tragic, slow motion situation. We can see the end of the community.” The community’s greatest worry is that too few Jews live on the island to replace the aging congregation. Intermarriage on Barbados has become the norm, and since the Conservative movement deems children of patrilineal descent to be non-Jewish, many of the resulting offspring who could have replaced the aging generation were never fully embraced as Jews. A small and aging community isn’t unique to Barbados. “It’s like a small Jewish community anywhere,” said Rechtman. Before he grew too distressed, he recalled one thing that sets this Jewish community apart from all others, and something optimistic sparkled in his voice: “Except we have this 365-year-old synagogue.”

*

Nidhe Israel is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue. (Ignore Rabbi Google on that search, as it incorrectly retrieves results about Curacao’s oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. But the one in Curacao was erected 78 years after the Barbadian house of worship.) Nidhe Israel translates to Synagogue of the Scattered of Israel, apropos of the dispersed Jews who had settled Barbados. After fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, Jews settled in Brazil. But centuries later, in 1628, shortly after Portugal reclaimed Brazil as a colony, the Jews there skedaddled. A number hightailed it to the newly established British settlement of Barbados. For 300 years, Sephardic Jews prospered on the island. They held monopolies in the sugar trade. In the 1700s, the Jewish population peaked at 800—8% of the island’s population. And two years before civil and political freedoms were granted to Jews in the United Kingdom, they were given to Barbadian Jews.

 

Of course, even for a bunch of Jews in the Caribbean, life was no permanent vacation: Anti-Semitism rose in tandem with Jewish success in the sugar industry; a second synagogue on the island was mysteriously burned to the ground after a conflict with an uninvited gentile erupted at a Jewish wedding; and in 1831, a hurricane destroyed Nidhe Israel. With the storm wrecking both the synagogue and business opportunities on the island, Jews dispersed, leaving few worshippers on Barbados. However, by 1833, those Sephardic Jews who had remained rebuilt Nidhe Israel, and for nearly a century, they conducted services in the capital city, Bridgetown, until the last Jew on the island died in 1929.

For two years, there wasn’t a single Bajan Jew. But in 1931, an Ashkenazi Jew—Moses Altman, who had seen the writing on the wall in Europe—fled to Barbados. Friends and family followed. The second Barbadian Jewish community had begun. Yet, these new arrivals didn’t have a synagogue, for the last Sephardic Jew had sold off Nidhe Israel, and the building had been converted into commercial offices and a law library. So the new Jews worshipped in a private home until the 1960s, when the Jewish community purchased and operated a small unassuming synagogue, Sha’are Tzedek, a few miles south of Bridgetown in Rockley. But then, in 1979, the government announced plans to raze the historic Nidhe Israel structure to build a new Supreme Court. It seemed that the centuries-old building was doomed—until one man stood up to save it.

*

On the sixth day of Passover this spring, my taxi turned right onto Synagogue Lane in Bridgetown. When I entered the grounds of Nidhe Israel, I found Paul Altman—the grandson of Moses Altman, that first Ashkenazi Jew to arrive on the island—standing in the shade of a giant tamarind tree, staring out at a collection of gravestones. When the government planned to demolish the synagogue and cemetery 40 years ago, Altman recalled, “My father went ballistic. ‘You’re not going to touch any graves and you’re not going to touch the synagogue building.’ Those were [my father’s] exact words.” [. . .]

In the 1980s, Altman became president of Barbados’ National Trust. In 1985, after witnessing the government’s destruction of Codd’s House, where the island’s emancipation bill had been signed, Altman took decisive action to prevent the demolition of Nidhe Israel, six years after plans to raze it had first been announced. Using his position and savvy, he made a handshake deal with the prime minister, who had said, according to Altman’s retelling, “If you can find the money, we’ll move the Supreme Court building.” Altman secured the necessary donors; the prime minister kept his word. But the synagogue had already spent half a century as a secular building, so what Altman received was Nidhe Israel’s zombie: Everything holy had been gutted, the upper-level windows had been plugged with cement, and a full second floor had been installed where the women’s balcony had been, dividing Nidhe Israel in half.

After discovering a trove of records and photographs, however, Altman was able to reconstruct the synagogue and the grounds. He transformed the old schoolhouse into a museum, fixed up the cemetery, and brought in a doctoral candidate of archaeological history, who uncovered a buried mikveh. The entire project took more than 30 years to complete. And when the grounds officially reopened in 2017, the synagogue became undead. [. . .]

[. . .] Worrying if Nidhe Israel will survive is no longer a concern for Bajan Jews or the Altman clan. The Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue has been vested in the National Trust and cannot be sold off, as it had been in the past. Should Barbados preserve its Jewish community, Nidhe Israel is theirs to use. Should it die off, the synagogue will remain … just empty. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/285767/once-on-this-island

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