November 16, 2018

Barbados’ Nidhe Israel: Torah on a tropical isle

When I tell people that we are members of Congregation Nidhe Israel, the Jewish community in Barbados, I get the most incredulous stares.

Barbados is, of course, well known as a “sun, sand and sea” island in the Caribbean, but it has many more attractions than these. Jewish visitors, in particular, are drawn to downtown Bridgetown, the island’s capital city, to visit the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

Unlike most Caribbean islands, Barbados is more than a mere resort. It is a parliamentary democracy patterned on the British Westminster system. While it was “discovered” and named by the Portuguese, it was settled by the British in 1625 and remained a Crown colony until Nov. 30, 1966, when it became an independent member of the British Commonwealth, a status similar to that of Canada. Today, its principal industry is tourism, although it also has a vibrant industrial sector, particularly in the area of information technology, due largely to its high education standards.

Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, some 1,600 miles from Miami. It is pear-shaped, just 21 miles long and 14 miles or, as it said in one of its ads, “a smile wide.” English is the primary language among 300,000 of the warmest, most welcoming people we have found anywhere.

The island receives close to 1 million visitors annually, about half of whom arrive by cruise ship and spend just a few hours there. Of the rest, about 50 percent are British and Irish. Americans and Canadians make up the majority of the rest, although there is a goodly smattering of Continental Europeans and residents of neighboring Caribbean islands.

Accommodations in Barbados run the gamut from super-luxurious resort hotels to modest bed and breakfasts, and there are also a vast number of villas and condominiums available for long- and short-term rental. Possibly the best known of the hotels is Sandy Lane with daily rates starting at more than $1,000 per day. Other leading hotels include the intimate 40-suite Cobblers Cove, Treasure Beach, which has a reputation for attracting famous writers, and the ubiquitous Hilton, with extensive facilities for meetings and conventions.

In addition to every imaginable water sport, the island offers several world-class golf courses, tennis, polo, horseback riding, hiking trails and biking, as well as the national passion, cricket. In fact, its brand new, state-of-the-art stadium hosted the 2007 Cricket World Cup finals.

Barbados has a wealth of historic attractions, including the recently renovated plantation great house, St. Nicholas Abbey, built in 1650 and one of only three Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere (a second, Drax Hall, is also in Barbados; the third is in South Carolina). For Jewish visitors, however, the Bridgetown Synagogue and the surrounding cemetery is of supreme interest.

Jews first arrived in Barbados in the 1654 as refugees from the Inquisition in Brazil.

They introduced sugar to the island, and their community soon grew and prospered. Their first synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831, and a new synagogue was subsequently built on the same site. Due to intermarriage, a devastating hurricane and emigration, the original Sephardic community dwindled and had died out by 1929, after which the synagogue building was sold and used for a variety of purposes, lastly as a warehouse.

Jews began to arrive in Barbados once again as the situation in Europe deteriorated prior to World War II. The first of today’s Ashkenazic community to arrive was Moses Altman, who came from Poland in 1931. He was followed by his son, Henry, who today, at age 94, is the senior member of the island’s small but influential Jewish community of some 30 families numbering more than 100 permanent residents. They built their first synagogue and community center, Shaare Tzedek, in a residential neighborhood. That building, which is air-conditioned and has a kitchen, continues to be used during the warmer summer months for Shabbat services and throughout the year for holiday celebrations.

When it became known in 1983 that the abandoned synagogue in Bridgetown was to be demolished, Henry’s son, Paul, who was born in Barbados and is one of the island’s most prominent businessmen, approached then-Prime Minister Tom Adams and persuaded him to allow the Jewish community to restore the building and consecrate it once again as a synagogue.

After a major fundraising drive and with the assistance of architects and historians from England, the Bridgetown Synagogue was restored to its former glory. Friday night services, conducted by local lay leaders, are held there throughout the winter months. During major holidays they attract as many as 100 worshippers from the world over. The synagogue is patterned after the famous Bevis Marks Sephardic synagogue in London, with a magnificent ark, a reader’s table in the center and superb reproductions of the exquisite chandeliers and locally crafted mahogany benches. The synagogue’s Tablets of the Law and a large wall clock are originals.

The surrounding cemetery contains the graves of many of the original Jewish settlers, with inscriptions in both Hebrew and Ladino. An adjoining historic building is currently being renovated and will be used as a museum highlighting the history of the Jews in Barbados.

In the early 1990s, Barbados’ government issued a set of postage stamps to commemorate the re-dedication of the synagogue, and in 2004 it issued a commemorative $100 gold coin to mark the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish community in Barbados.

Of the many tourists we have met there, Ben Omessi, a recent visitor from Northridge, summed up the reactions typical of most describing the Bridgetown Synagogue, calling it “yofi m’od.”