Printer Friendly

A synagogue survives shifting sands.

VIOLINIST YITZHAK PERLMAN plans to make an appearance. So does Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, poet Maya Angelou, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They, along with thousands of other people, are expected to flock to the U.S. Virgin Islands over the next two years to celebrate an unusual milestone in Caribbean Jewish history--the two hundredth anniversary of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas.

The congregation, also known by its Hebrew name, Bracha V'Shalom V'Gmilut Hasidim (Blessing, Peace, and Acts of Loving-Kindness), occupies the oldest Jewish house of worship in continuous use under the U.S. flag, and one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. The structure's sand-covered floor, mahogany fixtures, and crystal chandeliers have made it one of the island's top tourist attractions.

The synagogue's actual bicentennial won't take place until 1996, but preparations for the big event have long been under way. "We're throwing a party and inviting the world," remarks Rabbi Bradd Boxman, the congregation's thirty-four-year-old spiritual leader and native of Philadelphia.

To be exact, Boxman and his staff are sending out fifteen thousand brochures to Jews and non-Jews in Puerto Rico, the continental United States, and Latin America, urging them to come to St. Thomas and help mark the congregation's bicentennial.

According to Boxman, about fifteen hundred Jews reside in the Virgin Islands. Well over half of them live on St. Thomas, with smaller numbers living on St. Croix and St. John. The congregation's six hundred or so members belong mainly to Ashkenazi families who came here from the U.S. East Coast over the last thirty years. A small minority, however, are black Virgin Islanders whose ancestors settled in St. Thomas many generations ago.

The island's lure for Jews is nothing new. Jewish merchants, ship chandlers, and traders in sugar, molasses, and rum have lived on St. Thomas ever since it was settled by Danes in 1665, though the congregation itself wasn't founded until 1796. Records show that in 1801 only nine families belonged to the Hebrew Congregation, increasing to twenty-two families by 1803 with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from England, France, and the Dutch glands of Curacao and St. Eustatius.

In 1804 a fire destroyed the original synagogue building. Rebuilt in 1812, it was dismantled eleven years later to make way for a larger structure. That building burned to the ground in 1831 and was replaced and reconsecrated two years later on the same site, known to this day as Synagogue Hill. From then until now, the community has always held a weekly Shabbat service, plus additional services for all major Jewish holidays.

According to Boxman, everything in the current sanctuary dates back to 1833, including the mahogany benches, the French crystal chandeliers, hurricane-proof walls, and windows that allow for the free passage of air while blunting some of the force of harsh storms--the most recent one being Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.

In addition, six ancient Torah scrolls are kept in the mahogany ark, while the menorah behind the bima, or pulpit, is of Spanish origin and dates from the eleventh century. Guarding the ark--in an unusual juxtaposition of colors and political symbolism--are the flags of the United States, Israel, and the Virgin Islands.

The synagogue's most striking characteristic, however, is its sand-covered floor. Two explanations for the sand have emerged. The first is that it recalls the desert through which Moses and the Children of israel wandered for forty years. More likely, though, is the second explanation, which dates to the Sephardic Jews of Spain. During the Inquisition, Jews were forced to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes, lest they be found out and forcibly converted to Catholicism on pain of death. The sand-covered floors muffled the sounds of their prayers and made worshippers' footsteps less obvious. In the seventeenth century that tradition was brought by Sephardic Jews to the Caribbean and has been preserved to this day in the synagogues of Kingston, Jamaica; Willemstad, Curacao; and Paramaribo, Suriname.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:US Virgin Island's Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:664
Previous Article:Del amor y otros demonios (Of Love and Other Demons).
Next Article:The manatee's hidden haven.
Topics:


Related Articles
Rising star.
West Hollywood's temple of pride. (Judaism).
`THE VALLEY WAS SOMEWHAT OF A DESERT, IT HAD TO BE PLOWED.' RABBI WATCHED VALLEY JEWS GROW.
RABBI'S LIGHT SHINES IN TEMPLE, INSPIRING OTHERS TO LEARN MORE.
TORAH, FAITHFUL FIND A NEW HOME IN NEWHALL TEMPLE.
SHOMREI TORAH WILL DEDICATE LONG-AWAITED WEST HILLS TEMPLE.
Star in the east: paradoxically, Jewish communities in Germany are now thriving and recent new synagogues, such as this one in Chemnitz, also...
151-year-old synagogue gets new lease on life.
Setbacks test temple's will to build.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters