‘Feel the rhythm’ of Jamaica’s Judaism [PHOTOS]

The first thing you notice at Shaare Shalom Congregation in Kingston, Jamaica is the sand on the floor, softening the sound of your footsteps as you take your seat. You bend down and let the grains, smooth-gritty, run through your fingers. Is there some meaning in it, a reference to the 40 years the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert? 

Hurricane season is in full swing, so it’s hot and humid, with occasional thunder, the tail-end of tropical storm Isaac passing by; but inside the stately chapel, it’s comfortable: The large windows of the 100-year-old building are wide open, and overhead fans keep the place airy. 

There are 40 worshippers, and it’s a diverse group: Most are white, some are black, others are shades in between, as well as one of Asian descent. This feels natural for a country where most of the population is non-white, where there’s been a mingling of ethnic groups, and where marriage, or at least romance, between different races has been going on for hundreds of years.

Shaare Shalom Congregation, also known as the United Congregation of Israelites, is the last active synagogue in Jamaica. Its services seem familiar yet exotic, like the congregants themselves: a mix of Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Orthodox and Reform, English spoken with that distinctive Jamaican lilt, and prayers sung beautifully in Hebrew by a man and woman, both of African descent.

In the social hall next to Shaare Shalom’s sanctuary, Ainsley Henriques, 74-year-old doyen of Jamaica’s Jewish community, proudly points to an exhibition of centuries of Jamaican Jewish life. Displays show contributions made in commerce, art, politics, journalism, medicine and law.

Henriques says that nowadays, there are only about 250 people left on Jamaica who self-identify as Jews (less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the island’s population). Their numbers are dwindling, and on occasion it’s hard to put together a minyan, but Henriques and others in the community emphasize their determination to keep Judaism alive in Jamaica. 

For one thing, Shaare Shalom has brought in a new rabbi, after 33 years without one. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, a 51-year-old American Reform rabbi, has ideas intended to attract younger people: a bar/bat mitzvah program, nature-adventure activities for young families, informal social gatherings for young parents. And more plans in the works.

Henriques says the community is also being revitalized by Jamaicans who have discovered their affinity to Judaism, like the two cantors: Winston Mendes Davidson, called Winty, a 66-year-old doctor and public health official who converted after learning of his Jewish roots (Mendes, his mother’s family, is a venerable Sephardic last name in Jamaica); and Marie Reynolds, who was brought up Christian and discovered her love of Judaism while living in London.

As charming and moving as Shaare Shalom is, it’s unlikely that a Jewish tourist, even an observant one, would go to Jamaica only for the Jewish sites, or would remain in Kingston — in the southern part of the island — during the whole vacation. 

More likely, a typical tourist would go to the northern shore, spending time in those places whose exotic names — Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Runaway Bay — evoke images of rum drinks with little umbrellas, spectacular white-sand beaches, warm Caribbean waters, lush foliage and estates where legends like Noel Coward or Errol Flynn cavorted to their hearts’ content.

Over the years, Jamaica has gone through well-known phases. To mention a few: piracy (including Jewish pirates); the laid-back lifestyle of Negril on the western part of the island during the 1960s; and Rastafarianism, spear-headed by the late reggae icon Bob Marley. 

Modern Jamaican resorts have moved well beyond those notions. The country has developed eco-tourism activities, thrilling adventures and pleasant diversions aimed at appealing to a wide range of tourists: college students, singles, families and couples of all ages. 

You can take a chairlift over the treetops, steer a bobsled down Mystic Mountain (on steel rails, not ice), or glide down the rainforest canopy on a zip line.

Swimming with and getting kissed by a dolphin (no joke) may be on many people’s bucket list, especially when that dolphin is a frisky adolescent female named Misty; but much more heart-thumping is the hike up Dunn’s River Falls. 

Wearing only a bathing suit and water shoes that grip the wet rocks (you can rent them there), you start at the bottom, where the waterfall empties out into the Caribbean, and climb up the slippery boulders, heading up toward the waterfall, with occasional dips or slides into deeper pools. Depending on your fitness level, it can take from a half-hour to an hour to get to the top, where you’re rewarded with a waterfall shower.

Ocho Rios tourism offers quiet moments as well: birds of exotic coloring pecking at seeds on your palm, hummingbirds with spectacularly long tails, panoramic views of the north coast. 

It also offers jerk chicken and other local delicacies by the shore, in the moonlight, with other tourists as well as Jamaicans. A country that’s an island paradise for tourists and cruise-ship day-trippers is still mired in thatched-roof poverty for too many residents; but Jamaicans’ radiant smiles seem genuine and unquenchable, whatever their economic reality. 

A Bob Marley lyric comes to mind: “Forget your troubles and dance. Forget your sorrows and dance. Forget your sickness and dance. Forget your weakness and dance …”

Wherever you go in Jamaica, local music is always playing, from Harry Belafonte to Toots and the Maytals to a steel-drum band. And if you start to dance, people will smile at you. They might even join you. They understand: Forget about whatever you left back home and dance. 

Still, there was a mystery to be solved: the sand on Shaare Shalom’s floor.

There’s plenty of evidence that Jews have been in Jamaica since the mid-1600s. For example, the oldest of Jamaica’s Jewish cemeteries, at Hunts Bay, west of Kingston, has been explored by the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, which found a gravestone with Hebrew and Portuguese writing. That gravestone is dated 1672. 

But because of family lore, Jamaican Jews are certain there were Jews in Jamaica before that, as far back as the 1500s, when Spain controlled the island. Spain had brought the Inquisition to the New World, so if there were Jews in Jamaica in the 1500s, they wouldn’t have expressed their faith openly. When worshipping together, they would have quieted their footsteps. 

“The sand on the synagogue floor goes back to that time,” Henriques said, “when it was important for Jews not to arouse suspicions. Once the British took over in 1655, Jews could practice their Judaism openly.” 

And practice openly they did. They built synagogues and schools and a great deal more; they’ve been involved in every aspect of Jamaican life. But now, because of assimilation and intermarriage, because the core membership is aging and many Jamaican Jews have chosen to live elsewhere, the Jewish community is struggling to maintain its identity and integrity.

It’s working … for now. But who knows what lies ahead?

So after you’ve had your fill of rum drinks and spa treatments and glides over the rainforest canopy, you might want to check out Jamaica’s Jewish life while it’s still there. Like some other disappearing communities in exotic locales, it may not be around forever, mon.

Roberto Loiederman’s trip was sponsored by the Jamaica Tourist Board. 

Shavuot 5768: Praise for the scroll

In a knowledge world ruled by books and pages and digitized memory, why do Jews hold onto the scroll?

As Shavuot (with its focus on receiving the Torah) begins, I must ask: Could it be that rolled along together somewhere in our minds with the love of Torah is the love of scroll?

We are fascinated with book forms that when opened, extended, unfolded or unrolled change shape before our eyes. In the scroll, we have a form that can also expand our minds.

Though the scroll is used in other cultures and religions, it remains a distinctive Jewish form, distinguishing it especially from early Christian writings that used the newer form—the Roman codex, or book, to record their writings. It is our handmade, not mass-produced form passed from generation to generation that we read, study and honor.

Seeing the words of the Torah scribed in perfect columns makes us think of a book. But as the parchment unrolls without a beginning or an end in sight, we think of a journey. You find your place in a book by turning the pages, moving through paper by the numbers. With the Torah, you turn and turn and move through place and time.

Grab on to the wooden spindles to which the Torah is attached, the etzai chaim. As your hands and arms move, you also move through time, places, names and law. As you cross the Red Sea, you cross the sea of context as well. As you scroll, and the portion is chanted, the physical action moves you inside the story: the sea parts, you hurry through, and are saved and ready to sing as you reach the other side.

Consider that in the Torah when the Ten Commandments are given, they are written on two tablets. From a book designer’s point of view, the tablets are two pages—a spread. Form-wise this is perfect—attention is focused only on the two tablets; nothing more is needed.

Yet the Torah is not contained on a series of tablets or pages, it is on a roll. So where is our attention directed?

Open the Torah scroll to a single column and that is what we see. Open it two columns, three, four, and our attention suddenly opens to the entire beautiful calligraphic panorama before us.

As time passes the scroll becomes more modern. As an information system, the scroll is a forerunner to many of our modern information systems that also work by revolving mechanisms: computer hard drives and DVD players. We scroll down our computers only reluctantly, hoping what we need is in the opening screen. But unlike the monitor, the Torah scroll encourages us by its form to scroll across—to continue to read, visualize and, week after week, make the journey’s end.

Our brains are wired mostly for visual experience. It‘s a visual system that is ready for more. As you scroll through the Torah, names and places pass by and the mind makes connections. The scroll encourages the particular form of Jewish study that requires skipping from passage to passage, and from book to book. (So, add Web surfing to the claims of Jewish invention). The form helps the mind hold together as one the words, the verses and parashot from throughout the Torah.

For those whose task it is to the find the place in the Torah for their congregations, the scroll can be a curvilinear calendar, the position of the reading being associated with season or date. Many of us know that if the left side is small, then the end of the Jewish year is approaching and it is time to send out your Rosh HaShanah cards.

Even our Shavuot readings remind us of the scroll’s circularity. On this holiday, many read the liturgical poem Akdamut, which pays poetic homage to the endlessness of Torah. The end of each line ends with the Hebrew letters tav-alef (image, right), the final and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reminding us that when we get to the end of the scroll we begin anew.

Our culture places high value on creating whole designed environments. In restaurants, hotels, theaters and homes, we surround ourselves with music, lighting, art and colors. We admire the seamless and the artful motif.

The scroll, the Torah, is a gateway to a whole environment as well. It unrolls in so many ways, and as it does, we can become enveloped by its words and texture, and understand that indeed everything is in it.

It is said that on the first night of Shavuot, at midnight, the heavens open.

This year, imagine they unroll.

Edmon J. Rodman, a book and toy designer, designed “Mitkadem” and “Jewish Holidays Building Blocks” and is the author of “Nomo, the Tornado Who Took America By Storm.” He is a Torah reader and occasional roller at the Movable Minyan. Rodman built a pyramid of matzah last Pesach

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

On 27 May, 2007, 10 Sivan, 5767. The United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of a new sefer torah. The torah was carried by Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi from Jerusalem. They were met at the Tinson Pen airport in Kingston. The rabbi and the torah preceded the motorcade through the city to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Kingston. The scroll was then taken into the synagogue Shaare Shalom. Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi completed the writing of the torah. Then the sefrei torah were taken out of the ark and paraded in a semi-circle. The congregation exploded in joy with dancing and clapping of hands. This was followed by a service of thanksgiving.

Northern Israel tourism gets back to normal; Travel warning impacts Rangoon synagogue

Northern Israel tourism gets back to normal

More than two months after the cease-fire took hold, tourism to northern Israel is returning to normal. Hundreds of thousands of holiday travelers ventured north during Sukkot, attending festivals or simply exploring the great outdoors.

Hotels in the Galilee reported a 90 percent room occupancy rate during Sukkot, according to Ynetnews. Tiberias police estimate almost 150,000 people enjoyed Kinneret beaches, with 20,000 attending the Bereshit Festival at Dugit Beach. Nature reserves and national parks drew thousands due in part to a joint effort by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Parks Authority to drop entrance fees for the holiday. About 2,000 visitors inundated kayaking sites at Kibbutz Kfar Blum and Beit Hillel, and traffic was heavy at the Marom Galil Regional Council’s dune buggy sites.

Among the dozens of events that took place during the holiday were three festivals — the Haifa International Film Festival, the Carmiel Dance Festival and the Akko Festival for Fringe Theatre, which had been postponed during the recent war.

Israel’s tourism ministry is emphasizing the spiritual importance of northern Israel in its stepping up advertising campaigns here in the United States.

Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog paid his first visit to New York at the beginning of the month to announce two promotional campaigns to the Jewish and Christian communities. The first, “Israel: Taking You Higher,” was launched over the High Holidays and seeks to partner the emotional high of visiting Israel with Israel’s highest altitude cities, including Haifa and Tsfat, which were targets during the summer Hezbollah attacks. The second campaign features fast-paced television commercials scheduled to air in Los Angeles, New York and South Florida, which will highlight the calm and normalcy of Israel today. Similar commercials will run on Christian television and radio stations featuring testimonials from religious leaders.

Travel warning impacts Rangoon synagogue

Myanmar’s small Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Rangoon, Burma, has thrived for years thanks to Jews visiting from the United States, Canada, England and France. But American sanctions and other travel warnings against the Asian nation are taking a toll on this shul, AFP reports. Without foreign donations to support the congregation, local Jews are worried about the community’s future.

The Jewish population in Rangoon numbered about 2,500 prior to World War II, with many families originating from Baghdad or India. The synagogue itself dates back to 1896. The wartime Japanese invasion forced many families back to India, while others made aliyah after a military takeover in 1962; the last rabbi went to Israel in 1968. The current Jewish population of Rangoon is about 25 people.

“Now it’s difficult. Before, people came and donated money, but now less people are coming,” said Moses Samuels, 54, a synagogue trustee.

Samuel’s son, Sammy, recently graduated valedictorian from Yeshiva University in New York, and plans to open a travel company with his father. Myanmar Shalom is expected to begin operations in November, booking trips for Burmese Jews to return home for the holidays. While Sammy Samuel intends to live and continue studying in New York, he hopes to return to Rangoon one day to care for the synagogue like his father.

Ruth Fredman Cernea, author of “Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma,” encourages Americans to travel to the junta-controlled country formerly known as Burma, and says that its only hope is a change in the political and economic climate.

“More international businessmen would mean more Jews employed and living in Burma, and therefore a resident congregation for Musmeah Yeshua,” she said.

Heritage Center opens in Jamaica

Jamaica is marking the 350th anniversary of its Jewish history with the opening of a new heritage center at Kingston’s Shaare Shalom Synagogue on Nov. 9. The center is located in a hall adjacent to the synagogue, which will feature a permanent exhibit highlighting the nation’s rich history, the congregation’s archives, a family history center, video theater and a memorial garden.

After England took possession of the island from Spain in 1655, an Inquisition-weary people soon gained many similar rights of ordinary British citizens. Jamaican Jews gained full rights in 1830 and the community quickly became prominent in civic and political life. In 1849, before British Jews had the right to vote, eight of 47 members of Jamaica’s Legislative Assembly were Jewish.

Nearly 200 Jews live in Jamaica today, primarily in Kingston. Its close-knit Jewish community typically celebrates holidays with communal dinners. Shaare Shalom Synagogue itself can accommodate 600 people, and its floor is covered in sand, a tradition that dates back to 15th century Jews who fled the Inquisition.

For more information, e-mail shaareshalom@cwjamaica.com.

Calling all Matterhorn climbers

Have you conquered Switzerland’s Matterhorn? The Zermatt-based Matterhorn Museum is scheduled to open its doors in December and organizers are asking alpinists to register on its Web site, www.matterhornclimbers.ch, to be included in its permanent exhibit. The museum is also requesting a steep one-time $275 donation from registrants, which will help subsidize the project and its building costs. Donors can opt to have a name plaque installed at the museum’s entrance, along with the inclusion of their photo and ascent details on its Web site. Each year about 3,000 people attempt to climb the Horu, as the mountain is known in Switzerland. British climber Edward Whymper led the first successful ascent in July 14, 1865, but four out of seven members of his party died during the descent.

Briefs by Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Jamaican Elegance With a Jewish Twist

Set back from the Main Road behind the tall and majestic trees is the splendid mansion of Devon House. This stately mansion a regal tribute to the craftsmanship of Jamaica, and it also stands as a proud symbol of Jamaican Jewish history. Sitting on the aptly named Hope Road, this magnificent mansion is now open to the public.

The story of Devon House starts with George Stiebel. Born the son of a German Jew and a Jamaican housekeeper in the 1820s, his mixed parentage made his early years difficult. Taunted by his peers, young George left school at 14. At 19, he joined the crew building the Ferry Inn between Kingston and Spanish Town and by the time he reached his early 20s, his father rewarded his tenacity with enough money to buy a ship. One ship turned into three and soon his fleet was trading between the other West Indian islands. When the rebel slaves of Cuba wanted guns, Stiebel began delivering them aboard his ships. But that scheme came to an abrupt halt when he was thrown into a Cuban jail cell on a gunrunning conviction.

But young George wasn’t all about making money. He was also a romantic who fell in love with Magdalen Baker, the Jamaican daughter of a missionary. Aware that his Cuban jail record and mixed background didn’t exactly make him an attractive prospect for a son-in-law, the young couple waited until after the death of Magdalen’s parents before getting married. A son and daughter soon followed, but so did tragedy.

Stiebel had moved to Venezuela where his trading business flourished. However, bad weather caused one of his ships to sink off the South American coast. Miraculously, he survived only to discover he had lost everything except the money belt he tied to his waist before jumping ship.

With a young family in Jamaica to support, Stiebel stayed in Venezuela, determined to recoup his lost fortune. Eventually his investments in Venezuelan gold mines paid off and he returned to Jamaica in 1873 as a man of great wealth.

But bad luck struck once again when he discovered his teenage son had died while he was away in Venezuela. While in his 50s and financially secure, Stiebel bought sugar estates and 99 Jamaican properties (local law at the time forbade owning 100 properties). Now officially Jamaica’s first “black millionaire,” the Honorable George Stiebel, as he was known, was a man of respect.

In 1879, he bought 53 acres of land from the St. Andrew Parish and built his dream house on the foundation that was the church rectory. He called that dream house Devon House and for 10 years, George and Magdalen, their daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Richard Hill Jackson, who had become the mayor of Kingston, lived like Jamaican royalty.

With its elegant single staircase in the grand lobby, European antiques and handcrafted mahogany furniture, Devon House was a sight to behold. Its many bedrooms, with their Southern-style verandahs, grand ballroom, library, gaming room, grand Wedgwood ceilings and exquisitely carved fanlights above the doorways, earned Devon House the coveted National Monument honor bestowed by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

But the fairy tale on Hope Road began to unravel for the Stiebels. In 1892, Magdalen died. In 1895, their grandson died of typhoid and, a week after that, Richard Hill Jackson died. Heartbroken again and in his 70s, George Siebel died in 1896 leaving behind his beloved Devon House.

After Theresa Stiebel Jackson’s death in 1922, Devon House was sold to Reginald Melhado, another successful Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur whose descendants had been forced to leave Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. He lived in the mansion for five years and in 1928, passed the torch to another member of Jamaica’s Jewish community.

The new owner, Cecil Lindo, was descended from a Sephardic family that fled to Costa Rica and Jamaica to keep from becoming Christian converts during the Inquisition. Lindo lived in Devon House until his death in 1960 at the age of 89.

Like Stiebel, Lindo left Devon House to his family. It was Lindo’s wife who was approached by developers to sell it in 1965. However, under the National Trust Act, the Jamaican government stopped the developers from demolishing the mansion and began their own restoration process in 1967.

George Stiebel’s life story is “an inspiration for all Jamaicans,” said Janice Francis-Lindsay, the promotions coordinator for the Devon House Development Company, which owns Devon House today. “His monetary donation helped stage the Great Exhibition of 1891, which introduced tourism to Jamaica.”

And so it is goes that Devon House was home to three families of Jamaican Jewish descent and today is one of the most visited attractions in Kingston, a turn of fate that would have made Stiebel smile.

The great ballroom has the original English crystal chandelier. The 200-year-old clock still ticks, and you can see some of the Stiebel family possessions in the master bedroom.

Once the servants’ quarters, the Courtyard Shops sell a variety of Jamaican products in stores like Rum, Roast and Royals, Elaine Elegance and T and Treasures. Traditional Jamaican recipes can be sampled in what used to the Stiebel coach house and the best ice cream on the island is for sale in the lush courtyard. The west lawn gazebo is popular for craft fairs and picnics, and the majestic Great House is one of the islands preferred venues for elegant affairs.

“Tourists come for more than just a tour of the House,” said Norma Rhodan, who has been conducting guided tours of Devon House for 16 years. “I’ve seen them spend an entire day here. It is one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in all of Jamaica.”

Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. Tours offered Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $5 (adults), $3 (children). For more information, e-mail devonhouse@cwjamaica.com.

Melanie Reffes is a travel journalist living in Montreal. She’s a correspondent with the Montreal-based “Travel World Radio” as well as a regular contributor to several publications including the Montreal Gazette newspaper.