Preserving the unique heritage of Jamaica’s Jews

Kingston, Jamaica - Abraham Cohen Henriques, a Jewish merchant from Amsterdam, arrived in Jamaica in 1670 on a mission to find the hidden treasure of Christopher Columbus.

Acting on a tip handed down to him by a forcibly converted Jew, he scoured the thick vegetation of the island's interior searching for the great explorer's secret stash.

By most accounts Henriques turned up empty handed, but he liked the place Columbus dubbed the "fairest isle" so much that he kept coming back.

More than three centuries later, the Henriqueses are still here.

Ainsley Henriques, the leader of Jamaica’s tiny Jewish community and a distant relative of Abraham the treasure seeker, is now on his own mission here: Instead of looking for a treasure, he is its guardian.

For the past 30 years Henriques, who is in his 70s, has worked tirelessly to preserve the rich history and traditions of Jamaica’s unique Jewish community.

"I restructured the congregation, established an office, employed staff and persuaded the community to open a museum," Henriques tells JTA. "We have hundreds of school children coming in to the synagogue every week to learn about the community."

Henriques teamed up with the Jamaican government to host an academic conference last week in Kingston on the history of the island's Jewish community. Participants came from around the world.

But Henriques harbors few illusions: He knows his may be a losing battle.

In his lifetime, he has seen the community here shrink slowly but steadily in a process that began long before he was born. From a peak of 2,535 Jews in 1881, only 450 were left in 1974. Today the community numbers about 200. There hasn’t been a regular rabbi here for 30 years.

Jamaican Jews are a subspecies of their own. A significant minority are black, the descendants of intermarriages or relationships between Jewish plantation owners and their slaves. They speak in the same unmistakable accent for which the island is famous. And like most Jamaicans -- but perhaps unlike most Jews -- they are laid back.

In downtown Kingston on Friday nights, prayers can be heard coming from the beautiful Sharei Shalom Synagogue-United Congregation of Israelites, the only remaining shul on the island. Prayers are read in English, Hebrew and Spanish -- a reminder of the community's Sephardic origins.

Built in 1908 on the spot of a previous synagogue destroyed by an earthquake, the two-storied shul is one of only four synagogues in the world with a sand floor, locals say.

"There are four main reasons why the floor is covered in sand," Henriques explains as he stands on the bimah. "First, to remind us that we are desert people. Second, that we may be as many as the grains of sand. Third, because it muffled the steps of our ancestors who worshiped in secret. And four -- and perhaps the most important reason -- the kids love it."

Hundreds of years of relative isolation have had an effect on local Jewish practice.

Read More: JTA


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