Moment's guide to the Caribbean.
Aruban Jews date their origins to 1563, the year that eight gravestones in the country's Jewish cemetery were erected. The cemetery, dotted with palm trees and surrounded by a whitewashed wall, is marked at the entrance with two Stars of David. But Aruban Jewish history really takes off in 1754 when Moses Solomon Levie Maduro, scion of a prominent family of Portuguese Jews in Curacao, arrived in Oranjestad with his family. Maduro went on to found the Aruba branch of the Dutch West Indies Company, and more Jewish families followed. Due to the community's small size, there was no house of worship until 1942, when the Jewish Country Club opened. Shortly after the club shut down in the late 1950s, Beth Israel Synagogue was built. Today, its approximately 75 members are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. In January 2011, they joyously celebrated a new arrival to the island: a brand-new Torah to replace their old scrolls, no longer deemed kosher due to the damaging effects of time and weather. Visitors to this cosmopolitan paradise can attend services, and then indulge in New York-style bagels at Dushi Bagels--an unexpected taste of New York's Lower East Side.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews first landed on the shores of Barbados in 1628. In 1654, they built a graceful synagogue, Nidhe Israel, in the lively capital city of Bridgetown. Nidhe Israel was refurbished and rededicated in 1987, and today services are once again held in its soaring sanctuary, furnished with mahogany pews and bimah. (Most often, however, services are held in Shaare Tzedek, the island's newer synagogue.) The adjacent cemetery and its gravestones marked with intricate carvings unique to Sephardi Caribbean culture were also restored. The interior of the old Jewish school next to the cemetery has been transformed into a modern, highly interactive museum, chronicling the island's Jewish history and displaying artifacts and photographs. Recently, excavations in the parking lot led to the discovery of a mikveh, the oldest one in the Western hemisphere. Museum director Ceslo Brewster, one of the 40 members of the Jewish community, leads tours of the synagogue, cemetery, museum and the mikveh.
In the 1650s, 10 to 12 Sephardi Jewish families from Portugal and Spain settled in Curacao, an island off the coast of Venezuela. Ever since, Jews have been an important part of its economy, politics and culture. Today, a thriving community of 450 Jews calls the island home. Most belong to one of two congregations, which share a Hebrew school and events. Synagogue Mikve Israel-Emanuel, founded in 1651, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in all of the Americas. The Spanish-style edifice, built in 1732 in downtown Willemstad, is breathtakingly beautiful both inside and out: The yellow exterior is stucco and inside, under ornate chandeliers, are sand-covered floors, thought to be a holdover from the Jewish practice of using sand to muffle the sound of prayer in Catholic Spain during the Inquisition. Once Sephardi Orthodox, Mikve Israel-Emanuel is now affiliated with the Reform movement In 2006, the Orthodox community of Shaarei Tsedek dedicated a new synagogue on the island. The roof of its sanctuary is covered by a transparent dome, making the sunlit Caribbean blue sky a backdrop for prayer. The rejuvenation of this community was led by Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun, who came to Curacao for a short contract in 2000. Eleven years later, his tenure continues, as does his commitment to observant Jewish life on this small island. Curacao is a popular destination for Jewish life cycle celebrations. For couples and families looking to celebrate weddings and b'nai mitzvot on the island, the Marriott Resort in Curacao opened a kosher kitchen in August 2010. Guests can now enjoy the island's beauty and culture along with full glatt kosher menu for their events.
You can't visit Jewish Jamaica without hearing the name Ainsley Henriques, a descendant of a Jew who arrived from Amsterdam in 1740. Henriques serves as the unofficial Jewish historian, ensuring1 that everyone knows that the island's Jews hark back to the 15th century when Jamaica was one of the hot spots in the New World. About 200 Jews remain of what was once the largest population of Jews in the western hemisphere, many of them members of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston. Together they sponsor the Hillel Academy, a private Jewish school open to all denominations, and run a Jewish home for the elderly and underprivileged members of the community. Henriques, Israel's honorary consul in Jamaica, is one of the community members behind "Jamaica Shalom," a new endeavor that offers eco-friendly Jewish-Caribbean vacations for families and adults, as well as alternative spring breaks for college students. Last January, Henriques was also instrumental in pulling together an international conference on the "Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean," which was attended by more than 200 scholars and genealogists. Interest in Jewish Jamaica peaked anew in 2008 with the publication of the bestselling The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom--and Revenge. In it, the late Ed Kritzler recounts the pivotal role Jamaica played in the European expansion in the Caribbean and the long history of its Jewish community.
ST. THOMAS, US. VIRGIN ISLANDS
The St. Thomas Synagogue, built in the capital of Charlotte Amalie in 1833, is the oldest continuously used synagogue under the American flag. The synagogue has held services every week since 1833 except for one day: September 15, 1995, when Hurricane Marilyn tore through the island. The history of the Sephardi-style synagogue is reflected in its decor: The benches, ark and bimah are made of the mahogany that once grew in abundance on the island, and the menorah dates to the 11th century. Founded in 1796, the island's first synagogue served the needs of nine families but was quickly outgrown. In addition to weekly services, the active community hosts an annual Antiques, Art and Collectibles Auction, a chance for residents and visitors alike to support Jewish life on St. Thomas and bid on the artistry of locals. For those who miss the auction, the synagogue has a first-rate Judaica shop nestled near the "Synagogue Street" gate.--Rebecca Newman Leavey and Sala Levin