The Wandering Jew: Jews, pirates and the Inquisition

The Wandering Jew is searching for a tale about Jamaica's Jews.

jamaica jews 224.88 (photo credit: Paul Rockower)
jamaica jews 224.88
(photo credit: Paul Rockower)
I arrived here a week ahead of Hurricane Dean, searching for a tale about the Jews of Jamaica. The story found me almost immediately. It all began when I lost my way. I had been in Jamaica for all of an hour, and I was standing on the side of the road, looking at my guidebook and trying to figure how to get to my guest house. A car stopped, and the driver asked where I was headed. She was going near the guest house, so she offered me a ride. She was Deborah Binns, a member of Jamaica's small, vibrant Jewish community. Binns took me to her house to feed me, meet her family and learn about the island's Jewish community. Dr. Marilyn Delevante, author of a history of the Jews of Jamaica entitled The Island of One People, told me "the Jews of Jamaica were the first permanent inhabitants of the island." Jews began coming here after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. She mentioned Moshe Cohen Henriques, a Jewish pirate known for his cruelty; yet, as the legend goes, Henriques would never harm anyone on the Sabbath. Once there were 5,000-6,000 Jews in Jamaica, but emigration and assimilation have reduced that to an estimated 250-300. Most live in Kingston, but there are pockets of Jews throughout the island, including Israelis in Montego Bay connected to Ashtrom Engineering & Construction. As Shabbat came in, so did a tremendous rainstorm, a precursor to Hurricane Dean, and the streets of downtown Kingston practically had rivers running through them. I gave up waiting for the rain to die down, so decided to "swim" my way to Sha'are Shalom the island's only remaining synagogue. After wading through thigh-high water, I found the whitewashed synagogue filled with Jews of many hues. The rich baritone voice of the cantor Dr. Winston David and the sound of the synagogue's pipe organ filled the room. That Shabbat, there were 20 Jewish souls; during the High Holidays, there is nary a vacant seat. Sha'are Shalom is complete with a mahogany bimah and ark. It is unique for the soft white sand that covers its floor. The sand serves as a reminder of the times during the Inquisition when Jews were forced to pray in their basements and sprinkled sand on the floor to muffle the sound. Following services the next day, I perused the small Jewish museum next to the synagogue and spoke with the community's spiritual leader, Stephen Henriques (yes, the same name as the pirate). Sha'are Shalom has been without a rabbi for nearly 30 years. Henriques was quick to say the Jews of Jamaica have gotten along very well with their neighbors and that there had never been any significant anti-Semitism. Intermarriage has been common, but Henriques said nearly all children from these union's were raised as Jews. The Jewish Agency sent Alon Gildoni, 23, from Ramat Gan to serve as its emissary to Jamaica nine months ago. The Orthodox Gildoni also helps prepare kids for their bar mitzvas and teaches courses on Judaism and Zionism. There is another link connecting Jamaica to the Jewish world. Every year, Chabad sends two emissaries to Jamaica. This year's pair, Levi and Sholom, were due to arrive during my visit, so Gildoni, his best friend, Shidos, who was visiting from Israel, David, a French Jew studying in Jamaica, and I scoured the shelves of a supermarket looking for kosher products to serve to the new arrivals. Eventually, the whole crew took a road trip to the Blue Lagoon in Jamaica's northeast. Some locals wanted to know if Levi and Sholom were "Muslim or Sikh?" The Jamaicans looked on with slight confusion as the Chabadniks rocked and prayed by the lagoon. Jamaican attitudes toward Israel seemed positive, and when my friends told people they were from Israel, the response was often simply: "Bless." Jamaica's Rastafarians have cultural and religious links to Judaism and the Torah. The country could prove to be a real opportunity for Israel's Tourism Ministry to promote travel to the Jewish state. I encountered surprisingly few Israeli backpackers - a real surprise given the island's mellow vibe. My travels in Jamaica ended just days before Hurricane Dean hit it. As the island paradise is struggling to deal with its aftermath, my thoughts and prayers are with the country and its extraordinary Jewish community. Paul Rockower was press officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the US Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He recently spent two weeks wandering around Jamaica. You can read more of his misadventures on his blog at