BRIDGETOWN – In 2014, Congregation Nidhe Israel in Barbados will turn 360, making it the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere.
The story of Jewish Barbados is one of escape, freedom, piracy, trade, secret identities, sugarcane, intermarriage, assimilation, windmills, conversion, slavery, emigration, restoration.
It is a story of mysteries and remnants.
It is one that Robin Walcott knows well. A descendant of one of the first English families to arrive on the island, Walcott has spent his life exploring the various cultures and historical threads that weave through his homeland.
As a veteran of the hospitality business, he has shared his pride and knowledge with countless visitors to the island. After managing several successful restaurants along the west coast, Walcott opened Beach View, a popular family resort in Paynes Bay, which he manages together with his younger daughter, Carrie.
In conversation with friend and local historian Karl Watson, Robin realized that the Bridgetown synagogue was about to mark a significant milestone. And he had an idea: bring Jews back to Barbados to celebrate the island’s unique Jewish history. With Beach View as a home base, families can celebrate b’nai mitzvah and traditional Jewish weddings in one of the oldest synagogues in the world, and follow a nearly 400-year-old trail of Jewish heritage.
The story begins in 1627, when the second English ship to arrive on the newly colonized island carried two Jews among its passengers. As Jews had been expelled from England in 1260 and would not be allowed to return until 1656, historians believe that these men were not English citizens, or at the very least hid their religious identity in order to gain passage.
Some believe that there were already Jews on the island when the English ships made landfall, and that their physical appearance may have inspired the very name of the land. It was either the Portuguese or the Spanish who first dubbed the land “Los Barbudos,” “the bearded ones,” referring either to the indigenous bearded fig trees (banyans) or to male Carib inhabitants or to the sea-spray on the outlying reefs, encircling the island like a white beard. But the banyan tree may never have grown here, inspiring another theory: the English encountered bearded Sephardic Jewish men when they docked in what would become the port city of Bridgetown, and kept the referential name, “Barbadoes.”
Over the next 30 years, the Jews came to the island, fleeing the Inquisition as it hunted them from Spain to Portugal to Dutch Brazil. Forced to give up Judaism in order to survive, these “New Christians” continued to practice their faith in secret, calling themselves “Esperandos,” those hoping for the Messiah, and “La Nación,” the Spanish-Portuguese Nation of the Caribbean. Many changed their surnames to hide traces of ancient Israelite lineage.
In 1654, Portugal waged a successful guerilla war against the Dutch-held state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, where a Jewish community had thrived in the open since 1630. Many Dutch fled, and with them 300 Jews – some to Amsterdam, others to the new English colony of Barbados. That year, as the “Jewish Nation” of Barbados, they successfully petitioned the Council of Barbados to establish the Sephardic Kahal Kadosh Nidhe Israel, the Sacred Congregation of the Scattered of Israel.
First, they built a mikveh. Then a cemetery and the esnoga – Ladino for “synagogue,” and a community school, all on the same property. The synagogue was badly damaged in the Great Barbados Hurricane of 1831, rebuilt and consecrated two years later to accommodate some 300 worshippers, men on the main floor, women and children in an upstairs gallery, accessible only by an outdoor staircase behind the building.
Witnessing the ceremony, which featured local government dignitaries, Christian clergy, and esteemed merchants, a Barbados Globe reporter noted, “Friday last was a day that will ever stand eminently distinguished in the annals of the Hebrew community of this town. The Jews, from the earliest settlement of the island, have been established among us, and may truly be said to have always been a useful and a valuable branch of our commercial industry and enterprise.”
The Jews set up shops and apartments along Bridgetown’s Jew Street (now Swan Street) and, later, tiny workshops along James Street at the corner of Synagogue Lane. They imported their knowledge of sugarcane cultivation from the years in Brazil, along with their well-established mercantile and banking network throughout the West Indies. Merchant David Raphael de Mercado sailed from Brazil to Barbados with 56 slaves and plans for a windmill that would revolutionize the sugarcane industry on the island. Jews fulfilled the compulsory militia service expected of all Barbadian men.
There were no doubt pirates among them, if the 17th-century gravestones in the Nidhe Israel cemetery offer any clues. There, typical carvings depicting menorot and the Cohen’s hands are interspersed with decorations unusual in a Jewish burial site: the knife-wielding arm of God extending from a cloud to cut down a tree. Angels and skulls and, most surprising, skull and crossbones.
A second Jewish community set down roots in Speightstown, 12 miles north of Bridgetown along the coast. Their synagogue, Semach David, “Offshoot of David,” was destroyed in 1739 by rioters when a non-Jewish wedding crasher was accused of theft by the Jewish host.
While Jews were not victims of violent antisemitism, as officially categorized “foreigners and strangers,” they were subjected to economic restraints such as higher taxes and exemption from retail trading. Before abolition in 1834, Jews were restricted to one slave per family. Jewish slave-holders and plantation-owners were scarce; the most renowned was Abraham Rodrigues Brandon, who used some 200 slaves to run his Hopeland plantation in St. Michael Parish and whose name adorns Brandon’s Beach on the west coast near the former plantation.
By the mid-1800s, as Nidhe Israel marked its 200th anniversary, the island’s economy was in decline, and so was its Jewish population, numbering only 100. Those Jews who hadn’t intermarried and assimilated or converted to Anglicanism were leaving – some back to their ancestral Amsterdam, others to England, Canada, and the U.S. They would help establish the Sephardic synagogues in Newport, R.I., Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Charleston, S.C., as well as several other synagogues in European and Canadian cities.
In fact, for the last 200 years, Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia has remembered the Barbados synagogue every Yom Kippur. “Nidhe Israel helped our congregation when we were in financial difficulties and came to our succor,” says Mikveh Israel’s Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai. “In gratitude, our Mikveh Israel has said a special prayer on Yom Kippur for Congregation Nidhe Israel in Barbados.”
By 1929, Edmund Baeza was the lone practicing Jew on the island. With the help of the Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, England, Baeza arranged for the deconsecration and sale of the synagogue building to Bridgetown attorney Henry Graham Yearwood for 500 British pounds and gave the proceeds to Bevis Marks. In exchange, Bevis Marks became trustee of Nidhe Israel, safeguarding the Torah scroll with its silver breastplate and pointer. Other fixtures were sold off, scattered – the wooden Ten Commandments plaques resurfaced at a private home on the island (and were later returned to the synagogue); the brass chandeliers hang in the Winterthur Museum, former home of Henry DuPont in Wilmington, Del.; the mahogany Ark and benches are currently unaccounted for. But remnants of these early Jewish families can still be found on Barbados, at least in name, as a flip through the island’s phone book will attest.
The building was used as office space until 1983, when it was seized by the Barbadian government and slated for demolition. Local real-estate developer Paul Altman would stay the wrecking ball, spearheading a 25-year-long rebuilding effort that excavated and restored the mikveh, refurbished the cemetery and synagogue, and created a museum in the former school building. Bevis Marks sent back the 500 British pounds to help clean up the cemetery. Opened in 2008, the property is designated as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A second wave of Jews – mostly Ashkenazi this time – began arriving on the island in the early 1930s, seeking employment and safe haven from pogroms and the Holocaust. They purchased “True Blue,” a house in the Rockley section of Christ Church, and named it Shaare Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and still used today for Friday night and fall holiday services. They continued to bury their dead in the Nidhe Israel cemetery. They thrived in real estate, commerce, and manufacturing.
Like their 17th century predecessors, these newcomers would assimilate and intermarry, or emigrate in pursuit of a Jewish spouse or a college degree. There are fewer than 20 Jewish families in Barbados, and countless intermarried families who usually do not affiliate with the Jewish community. There is a black Jewish congregation in Bridgetown, and several natives and immigrants at various stages of conversion to Judaism. In the high-tourism winter season, Nidhe Israel opens its doors for Friday night services.
Visitors can be part of Barbadian Jewish heritage year-round, Walcott says. The nearly 400-year-old trail wends up the narrow Swan Street to the Montefiore Fountain and Nidhe Israel complex, to the Shilstone Library and Barbados Museum and History Center, to Shaare Tzedek. Leaving Bridgetown, the path follows the west coast – Brandon Beach, named for the renowned plantation owner; the ultra-luxe Limegrove Lifestyle Centre in Holetown, built by Paul Altman; Speightstown; Earthworks Pottery and Flower Forest, created by Jewish-Canadian artist Goldie Spieler and now run by her son, David.
Page through the Barbados phone book and you will find dozens of names echoing the 17th-century Jewish community – Massiah, Aboab, Carvalho, DaCosta, Valverdes. It is believed that nearly all people of Spanish and Portuguese descent in Barbados can trace Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Even former Barbadian Prime Minister Errol Barrow, the island’s “Father of Independence, claimed Jewish heritage.
There are still mysteries to solve, Walcott says: Where did the Jewish pirates moor their ships? How many gravestones are in the hidden Jewish cemetery on Magazine Street in Bridgetown? What was the “Jewish Pie” collected by the British colonial governor from the Jewish community in the 18th century? Who was the “Mahamad” of Nidhe Israel? The island is a treasure trove of Jewish life old and renewed, an intriguing backdrop to Jewish family celebrations.
And for its small size – only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide – Barbados boasts an impressive variety of landscapes to explore, Walcott says. The west coast is known for its tranquil aqua waters, while the east coast is a surfer’s paradise. The interior of the island offers hiking through rainforest-like gullies and strolls through historically restored sugarcane estates and tropical gardens. Bridgetown boasts a wealth of historic buildings, from the George Washington House – where a young George Washington not only slept, but found his true life’s calling – to the Historic Garrison Area. Unique artisanal shops dot the island, with “chattel-house” crafts villages in Bridgetown and Holetown and ceramics and batik studios inland.
Working with a renowned event planner and the most knowledgeable tourguides and scholars on the island, Walcott crafts individualized family-vacation and Jewish celebration packages, tending to every detail from arrival at the Grantley Adams International Airport to departure.
For more information on Destination: Jewish Barbados, visit beachviewbarbados.com..
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High Holidays, water view
Yale professor leads island congregation
By Cindy Mindell
Dr. Hal Blumenfeld is Yale professor of neurology, neurobiology and neurosurgery, and director of the Yale Clinical Neuroscience Imaging Center.
But every High Holiday season since 1995, Blumenfeld has exchanged his white lab coat for the tallit and kippah of a lay rabbi – in Barbados.
Blumenfeld leads Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Shaare Tzedek, a small, rabbi-less Conservative synagogue in the Christ Church parish outside Bridgetown. He is a shaliach tzibur – Hebrew for “a person sent by the community,” and someone familiar enough with Jewish religious services to stand in for a rabbi.
A native of California, Blumenfeld grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island, where he cut his teeth as a shaliach tzibur at the Conservative synagogue led by his father, Rabbi David Blumenfeld. The Harvard- and Columbia-educated physician and neuroscientist joined the Yale University School of Medicine faculty in 1996.
After living in Westville for more than a decade, Blumenfeld and his wife relocated to White Plains, N.Y. so that their three children could attend SAR Academy in Riverdale. This year marks the 18th High Holiday season that the doctor and his family have spent on the island.
“Our children have grown up knowing Barbados as the only place they’ve experienced the High Holidays,” Blumenfeld says. “When they draw pictures for Rosh HaShanah in dayschool, the other kids draw the usual symbols of the holiday — shofar, apples and honey — and our kids draw beach, sail, sun.”
Barbados was already a familiar place when Blumenfeld met his wife, Michelle Brody, whose family traveled regularly to the island when she was growing up. Blumenfeld’s father was working for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in the ’90s and mentioned the Barbadian congregation to his son, a practiced shaliach tzibur since his teenage years. With no permanent rabbi, Shaare Tzedek was looking for a lay leader.
“I’m not formally trained as a rabbi or cantor, but I had a strong Jewish education and with my father being a rabbi, I knew enough about the prayers and the siddur to play the role,” says Blumenfeld, who has led services in New Jersey and Boston synagogues as well. “It’s my other professional beat, different from anything I do in New Haven. My wife and I were very happy to go.”
Blumenfeld sees a mix of congregants at “True Blue,” the original name of the house purchased to serve the Shaare Tzedek congregation: native-born Barbadian Jews, Jews by choice, non-Jews who are curious about the services and the religion. He sees attrition as well, but there are always newcomers to the Jewish community. “In the time we’ve been there, the composition has changed but the size has stayed the same,” he says. “Children are born and new people move in from Israel and other places.”
Blumenfeld describes his family’s Jewish community-away-from-home as “very warm, welcoming, and close.”
“It’s a very unique community, a mix of people who came in the ’30s and built on the foundations created by their 17th-century predecessors. It still has the feeling of being a special, remote enclave of Jews practicing Judaism in a unique locale, and maintaining a very strong connection to Jewish tradition – and at the same time, being integrated into Bajan society.”
There’s a good reason that the Blumenfelds are invited back year after year, says Jewish communal leader Paul Altman, a Shaare Tzedek congregant and close friend. “As usual, Hal was brilliant!” he says. “He and his wife Michelle and their three children are a part of our extended community. Hal is a very learned scholar and always includes wonderful and deep messages in his sermons.”
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From Guyana to Barbados to Judaism
By Cindy Mindell
Among the Barbadian Jewish community are Jews by choice, among them Guyana-born Narandra Lochan, who goes by his Hebrew name, Aviathar. While not finished with his conversion process, the shomer-Shabbat seeks out Jewish study opportunities wherever he can.
“My first contact with Judaism was through a biology teacher in Guyana, who is versed in Israelite/Judaic culture,” he says. “It seemed very intriguing and I did some research. It made sense, as opposed to Christianity, the country’s major religion.”
In 2002, Aviathar left Guyana to work in Barbados. The 20-year-old found a welcoming Jewish community and began studying Hebrew with Shuah Grace, the Israeli wife of Barbadian Bill Grace, until she returned to Israel.
“Over the years, my knowledge of Judaism grew from reading and listening to anyone learned in the Torah,” Aviathar says. “Some of my research came from Chabad.com and AishHatorah.org. Both websites proved to be very good for keeping the laws of the Torah.” He also read books about Judaism, and regularly studies from a Stone Edition Tanach, published by ArtScroll.
Aviathar is not currently working with a rabbi. “I will convert in the future but I am interested only in an Orthodox conversion by a recognized rabbi,” he says. In addition to attending services at Shaare Tzadek as often as he can, Aviathar studies online, guided by ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life.
An Israeli non-profit founded in 2002 by Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, the organization offers information and direction to navigate the bureaucracy of Israeli religious authorities, especially regarding Jewish lifecycle events. In 2005, ITIM published the first guide to conversion in Israel, subsequently adopted by the Prime Minister’s Office as the official Israeli guide to conversion. Since then, ITIM has helped more than 4,000 individuals through the conversion process in Israel.