Jewish island spirit

The local synagogue may only have 36 members, but the power and passion of the Barbados community should not be underestimated.

synagogue barbados 88 29 (photo credit: )
synagogue barbados 88 29
(photo credit: )
It seems an unlikely place for a synagogue, least of all for the oldest one of its kind in the western hemisphere. Yet Barbados is home to a fascinating Jewish history and community that, though small and dwindling in numbers, is keeping its annals alive and gradually introducing the rest of the Jewish world to its rich past. It started in 1627, when Portuguese Jews fleeing from Recife, Brazil, found refuge on the small, sparsely populated Caribbean island. Alongside the British, who had colonized Barbados around the same time, many became merchants, cultivating coffee and sugar, which they brought with them from Brazil. They established businesses on an island where they enjoyed religious freedom, building a magnificent orthodox synagogue, Nidhei Israel, on a street appropriately named Synagogue Lane, in 1654. Their names were DaCosta, Nehamyas, Mendes and DeMercado, among others, and many of those Jewish names remain inscribed on the country's older buildings, and on the ancient tombstones scattered around the synagogue. Some are even found in the telephone directory, although their descendents, alas, are no longer Jewish. The Sephardic Jews of Barbados grew in numbers in the 1700s, especially after 1667, when the British colony of Suriname was taken over by the Dutch, and many Jews moved to Barbados to retain their British citizenship. By the end of that century, the small island was home to nearly 800 Jews, with two Jewish communities in the towns of Bridgetown and Speighstown. The community continued to thrive through the first half of the 1800s, even after a devastating hurricane destroyed Nidhei Israel synagogue in 1831. Undeterred, the Jewish families banded together, coming up with 4,000 to rebuild a stronger structure that, they were certain, would withstand the next hurricane and the next century. When Nidhei Israel's doors reopened for services in 1833, the event was attended by "the most respectable inhabitants and ladies of grace, fashion and beauty," according to a report published in the local newspaper. "It was the day that would ever stand eminently distinguished in the annals of the Hebrew community of the town," mused the paper's editor. Sadly, his words were not to ring true over the years that followed. Only 15 years later, the Jewish community of Barbados had declined to 70, as a deteriorating economy led many to the United States. Those that remained died and were interred in the cemetery surrounding Nidhei Israel. In 1925, the last surviving Jew on the island sold the synagogue to a local family in the community for alternate use. Artifacts landed in museums and private homes, and it seemed the heyday of Barbados's Jews was gone for good. In fact, its revival was only six years away. IT WAS 1931 when Moses Altman arrived from Lublin, Poland, fleeing the anti-Semitism that rendered him an outcast in Eastern Europe. "He was actually on his way to Venezuela, but the ship docked at Barbados, and when he disembarked, he liked what he saw and applied for permission to stay," recalls his son, Henry, 93, who joined him a year later. Henry arrived at the age of 19 and remembers receiving a warm welcome from Barbadians who were happy to have Jews in their midst once again. Other family members, escaping the threat of Nazism in Europe, followed their Ashkenazi relatives to Barbados, until the Jewish community grew to 30 families. They established a synagogue in Altman's home, later purchasing a house in 1969 and converting it into a new synagogue to serve the community. Harold Saunders lived on the island between 1949 and 1963, and remembers it as an idyllic time. "We weren't very religious, but we were very Jewish," says Saunders, who lives in Vancouver, Canada today. "I attended cheder on Sundays and learned my bar mitzva haftora from a record my parents bought in the US. The Jewish families formed a close-knit group and we'd celebrate birthdays, Seders and holidays together." Spurred by his father, Saunders left the island at the age of 17, and though he considered moving back to Barbados over the years that followed, his father was adamantly against it. "He didn't want my kids to grow up there and face the possibility of marrying out of the faith, and he thought they'd have a better chance of a Jewish life in North America," he says. Since there was no university in Barbados at the time, the majority of Saunders's Jewish contemporaries completed tertiary education in the United States before settling in various parts of North America to raise their families. One exception was Altman's son, Paul, who returned to the island after studying in Miami, married a Jewish woman from Trinidad and established a business in real estate. "My dad encouraged me to come back to Barbados, and I feel very strongly that he did the right thing," Paul reflects. "I can't imagine living a more wonderful life than I do right here." Barbados is a safe place relative to the acts of terrorism that occur in other parts of the world, he added. And with the growth of tourism on the island, access to Europe and North America is quick and easy, and the island caters to a growing number of international dignitaries, visitors and investors. Throughout this time, while the Jewish cemetery surrounding Nidhei Israel was still used by the community, the synagogue itself had been sold to the Barbadian government. By 1983, when the government was scouting the city center for a venue for its new Supreme Court, the old Jewish synagogue seemed like a prime location. One thing they underestimated, however, was the Jews' attachment to the synagogue, and their determination to regain control over it. "I told Tom Adams, the prime minister at the time, that you can't destroy a national treasure, and you'll have to shoot me before you do," says Henry Altman, who was instrumental in helping to save Nidhei Israel from its impending demise. Fortunately, some members of Barbados's Jewish community had friends in high places, and within a short time, the government passed a resolution whereby Nidhei Israel was returned to the community. At that point, the considerable task of restoring it and reinstating originals or replicas of the synagogue's artifacts began in earnest. PAUL ALTMAN was the driving force behind the restoration of the cemetery and synagogue to its 1833 glory. He raised $1 million through private donations to make the process possible, applying for and receiving the support of the American Jewish Congress, the Commonwealth Jewish Trust and the Canadian Jewish Congress. The restoration meant stripping 60 years of accumulated alterations from the synagogue, a complex process that would involve painstaking analysis of old photographs of its interior and efforts to repatriate its artifacts or create exact copies. A non-Jewish historian by the name of E.M. Shilstone had inadvertently created the vital link between the old Sephardic community and the newer Ashkenazi arrivals to Barbados. He saved the books containing meetings from the minutes of the Sephardic community and had painstakingly recorded and translated the epitaphs on the fading cemetery headstones. "The pictures of the synagogue we found were all saved by Shilstone," says Paul. "He filled the missing link between the two Jewish communities of this island." The roof of the synagogue was replaced, chandeliers and intricate latticework were copied and wall sconces and a beautiful stained glass altar window were installed. And when Congregation Nidhei Israel opened its doors once again in 1987, the regal building was completely restored, with informative panels on its walls to educate visitors about its history. Open daily to tourists, the sound of Jewish prayers echoes in the walls of Nidhei Israel in the winter months, when its doors open for services on Friday nights, drawing Jewish visitors from all over the world. With the repair of the synagogue and cemetery, phases one and two of the restoration project have been completed, but Paul was anxious to fill a historical gap in the Jewish history of Barbados by creating a museum. Determined to make it happen, he once again accumulated funding from private donations, the majority coming from the Monaco-based Tabor family. "When it opens in April 2007, this museum will illustrate the contribution made by Jews to Barbados," Paul says. The Nidhei Israel Museum, featuring interactive exhibitions designed in Montreal and an archeology workshop, will soon open its doors adjacent to the synagogue and cemetery. On the day of my visit, the floor of the museum was being laid with large, interspersed stone slabs that create a visual connection between the museum and the graves that lie just beyond it in the Jewish cemetery. With approximately 36 paying members in the island's Jewish community today, numbers are dwindling and many of the younger generation have moved abroad to make their lives elsewhere. Some, like Henry and Paul Altman, remain positive about the future, convinced their children and grandchildren will return to this idyllic isle and carve out their futures here. Others, like Paul's cousin, Jimmy, the treasurer of the Barbados Jewish community, are less positive. "I suspect that in 20 years, the synagogue will be a monument, rather than a house of worship used on a regular basis," he says. "But I hope I'm wrong."