“Down the way where the nights are gay And the sun shines daily on the mountain top, I took a trip on a sailing ship And when I reached Jamaica I made a stop.”
They call it “Jamaica Farewell,” another song Harry Belafonte made famous, besides “Hava Nagila.”
There’s something about this Caribbean island that draws tourists. It’s certainly more than beaches and swaying palm trees that it possesses. Just maybe, it’s a rich musical heritage, a prominent and vibrant culture as well as unique food and drink, including jerk felafel, (Jamaican spices combined with traditional Israeli recipes,) now available for the first time in a Chabad kosher establishment in Montego Bay.
But whatever it is, Jamaica attracts.
Called the “Queen of the Antilles,” Jamaica is known as an island of tropical vegetation, delightful climate, sun, sand and sea.
To experience these Caribbean qualities, most tourists stop at the “big three” resorts of Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios, located mostly on the northern side of the island, which is about 144 miles long and 50 miles wide and claims an area of about 10,400 square kilometers for 2.8 million citizens. For comparison, Jamaica is about 1,500 sq. km. less than the area of the State of Connecticut.
The tourist sites are many and varied.
Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, stands out as one of the island’s top tourist attractions. The cold, clear mountain water splashes over a series of stone steps down to the Caribbean Sea. Many climb the slippery steps in a swimsuit. Make sure you ascend with a licensed guide and go early in the morning. Snorkeling in Dunn’s River should also be on your agenda.
By the way, depending on your thirst for excitement, one activity that I found a highlight of my trip is bamboo rafting down the Martha Brae River. It’s a worthwhile experience to wend your way through this landscape and will be remembered for years to come.
Tourists marvel at the island’s mountains. Traveling around Jamaica as I have on several occasions, one quickly learns that the island rises from the sea like one of the great turtles that abound in its waters. What I witnessed was that from the narrow, golden rim of the sandy beaches encircling the island, the land rises to the purple cloud-capped peaks of the Blue Mountains 2,250 meters above the sea – and extending from east to west to west through its center. That’s why these cool Blue Mountains located about an hour from the capital, Kingston, boast marvelous hiking opportunities for those who enjoy trekking up and down verdant hills.
High up in the Blue Mountains at almost 1,000 meters above sea level is the famous Strawberry Hill Resort, a mountainside retreat on a former tea estate.
The island contains a plethora of resorts. The Sandals Jamaica Resorts maintains nine establishments.
I stopped at Half Moon Resort in Rose Hall, Montego Bay, often the scene of Jewish weddings. Half Moon with its royal and imperial suites, its luxury villas, its nearness to the Half Moon shopping village, with up-scale boutiques, as well as its golf course, dolphin lagoon and fine restaurants, has earned a fine reputation.
Also splendid is the Ritz-Carlton Gulf and Spa Resort located on more than 2,000 picture-perfect hectares in Jamaica’s Rose Hall Plantation area. It contains more than 400 rooms.
Round Hill Hotel and Villas, Montego Bay, is unique, too. Here you can own your individual villa in what is truly a “villa setting in a hotel facility.”
While many visitors come to Jamaica for sand and sun, few tour Kingston, the capital, several hours from the resorts. As Harry Belafonte noted in Jamaica Farewell: “But I’m sad to say I’m on my way, Won’t be back for many a day, My heart is down, my head is turning around, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town.”
MOST JAMAICAN Jews reside in Kingston, often described as the “Babylon of the West,” a brassy, raffish, crowded and commercial city. About 100 Jews, mostly assimilated, intermarried and interracial, live here.
The majestic Kingston synagogue on 92 Duke St., known as the United Congregation of Israelites-Shaare Shalom, is surrounded by a memorial garden with unique tombstones. Services are at 5:30 p.m. every Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday mornings. I marveled at the sandy floor, as in the synagogues of Suriname, Curacao, St. Thomas and the houses of worship that functioned in Colon, Panama; and St. Eustatius.
Jews arrived in Jamaica soon after Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage to the New World in 1494. Officially, the Jewish community dates its founding to 1655/1656 when the British took the island from the Spanish. Jews helped the British in that seizure.
In the 18th century, the legal rights of Jews under the British were better than many places in Europe and the Jamaican Jews were called the “freest Jews on Earth.”
They settled throughout the island. Today, more than 20 Jewish cemeteries are known to exist.
In 1881, there were 2,500 Jews. By 1962, when the island achieved independence, the number had fallen to 1,600. Most left in the 1970s. Still, with only 100 Jews, all holidays are celebrated. They will welcome you to their Jewish Heritage Center, which was opened in November 2006, at a “Thanksgiving Service,” for the 350th anniversary of Jewish life on the island. Part of the center, a multi-purpose museum houses artifacts, restored Jewish archives, a reference library and a video theater.
Former Jewish community leader, member of the board for 40 years, community president, as well as Honorary Consul of Israel in Jamaica, is Ainsley Henriques, who with his wife Marjorie became the driving force behind the Heritage Center. He believes that Jews of Jamaica “will survive” because the island is a “pluralistic society that respects everyone’s religion and it’ll be that Jamaican economic opportunity and tolerance that will ensure our survival for at least another generation.”
Contact for Ainsley Henriques is 876-329-9520 or firstname.lastname@example.org In an interview, Henriques told me he meets with Chabad Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, now the only rabbi in Jamaica. He visits Kingston synagogue congregants every few weeks and travels to other towns as well.
Recently, Chabad of Jamaica opened the first Kosher Hot Spot and Welcome Center, 1-3 Gloucester Ave., on the famous Montego Bay’s Hip strip, right across Margaritaville.
Rabbi Yaakov and Mushkee Raskin, who settled in Jamaica in 2014, noted that the establishment is completely vegetarian. Hours: Sunday, 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.
to 3:30 p.m. With the opening of the Kosher Hot Spot, “Chabad of Jamaica is fusing two different food styles in an incredible Israeli-Jamaican culinary experience,” wrote Esther Gopkin in a Chabad newsletter. The organization (www.jewishjamaica.com/kosher) delivers kosher food to resorts, according to Rabbi Raskin.
For now, Chabad’s synagogue is located at Ironshore, 1113 Sterling Ave, Complex Venitan # 6, Ironshore, Montego Bay, Tel: 876-452-3223, 347-201-4851. Info@chabadofjamaica.
com, www.jewishjamaica.com. The Chabad synagogue is situated near four major resorts: Zoetry, Sandals, Royal Caribbean, Riu Montego Bay and Holiday Inn. Several dozen Jews reside in and around Montego Bay.
Both Ainsley Henriques and Rabbi Raskin noted that several hundred thousand Jewish tourists flock to Jamaica each year. Looking at a map, one can see why. Every airline seems to cross this large body of land, the only island surrounded entirely by the beckoning, blue Caribbean Sea.
Welcome to Jamaica! The writer, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America, (Pelican Publishing). Follow him on twitter @bengfrank , www.bengfrank.blogspot.com
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