KINGSTON, Jamaica — At one time, Shaare Shalom, the last operational synagogue in Jamaica, was able to fill most of its 400 seats.
“Over the years the community has diminished tremendously,” said 75-year-old Ainsley Enriques, the spearhead of the island’s Jewish community. “Fifty years ago we could have a full synagogue, especially on the High Holy Days; today, 70 or 80,” he lamented, adding, however, “We do get a minyan about 90 percent of the time.”
Another difference was in congregants’ deportment. “When I started going it was more formal. Men had to wear hats, and women sat upstairs.”
Henriques has been involved with the synagogue, a white wedding cake of a building whose sanctuary floor is covered in sand, since 1958.
For five days, between Oct. 31 and Nov. 4, he helped lead five American journalists — guests of the Jamaica Tourist Board — on a tour of his country’s struggling Jewish community.
“When I was younger we had a rabbi, we had a religious school on Sunday mornings, which today is almost impossible to get the youngsters to do,” Henriques said. “But we are not doing as well as I think we could be doing with the young people.”
In the 1880s there were some 2,500 Jews in Jamaica, and they worshiped at synagogues in Kingston, Fort Royal, Montego Bay, and Spanish Town. They and their ancestors flourished in business and politics, and historians noted that because eight of its 47 members were Jewish, the Parliament canceled its session on Yom Kippur in 1849.
When the British abolished slavery in its colonies in 1864, there was a sharp decline in sugar production. The overall economy suffered, and many Jews left Jamaica for Latin America and Australia. Still others headed to California as part of the gold rush.
In 2013, only 200 Jews remain on the island, and Shaare Shalom in this capital city is their last redoubt.
The figures are clearly distressing to Henriques, a plantation owner who has been active in the Jewish community since his 1958 return to the island after attending college in England.
“A huge number of Jews have assimilated out of existence,” said Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, who moved to Kingston in 2011 after 10 years at Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Ga.
Part of the problem is the synagogue’s location. It is located downtown in a neighborhood many consider unsafe. In addition, the rabbi said, the congregation’s leadership is “over 65, with some in their 40s and 50s.”
“We have to get younger people involved,” he said.
Kaplan, who graduated from Yeshiva University and received his rabbinical ordination from the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is also struggling to reconcile persistent tensions between the synagogue’s historic Spanish-Portuguese Orthodox tradition and its modern egalitarian practices. His efforts can be controversial.
Part of the conflict he inherited when he came to Kingston two years ago is embodied in its prayer book. It is an amalgam of a Sephardi siddur from the early 1800s, revisions by Orthodox Rabbi Moses Gaster in the early 1900s, and Reform content from the Union Prayer Book.
“We are attempting to build a Reform Spanish-Portuguese synagogue,” Kaplan told NJ Jewish News during an interview at a Kingston hotel. “Our prayer book is unique, with all sorts of things that come from different places.”
One is a joyful interpretation of the Misheberah blessing written by Debbie Friedman, the American-Jewish folksinger who died in 2011. It is sung each week by Marie Reynolds, a convert from Christianity, accompanied by an organ.
“What we had before was an old-fashioned English version, and nobody missed that,” said the rabbi. “Marie’s rendition is a beautiful song and everybody took to it really quickly. “It is well accepted and I don’t think people would want to take it away. But I am ambivalent because we want to build something that is Spanish-Portuguese/Jamaican. We don’t want to make this another American Reform synagogue.”
‘It is up to us’
Reynolds’s fellow cantor is Carl Beresford Abraham Estick, who has been associated with the synagogue since his brit 70 years ago.
“Things have changed dramatically,” he told NJJN. “When I was growing up, the place was full and the people were more serious about what is going on here.”
Another old-timer is Patrick Mudahy, who was raised as a Catholic before deciding to “return to the faith of my fathers” in 1967.
“We have a lot of Jews out on the street,” he told NJJN, “but they refuse to come here. They have become so rich that they stay away — but they are out there.”
He is a strong critic of Rabbi Kaplan.
“The future of this place is we need a rabbi who is very spiritual, who speaks to the congregation, telling them about the blessing God has given us,” Mudahy said. “This is not happening. I am not cursing him, but the truth is he does not have a spiritual upliftment.”
One controversy that stood out in Shaare Shalom’s recent history was an invitation Henriques issued to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan visited twice — once in 2002 and again in 2012.
“When he came to our shul a year and a half ago after two-and-a-half days of negotiations, it went very well,” Henriques told NJJN. “He was not allowed to speak in the synagogue at a service. Afterward I introduced him and he made an address. He claimed his ancestry was Portuguese Jewish but I have not been able to authenticate that.”
With his history of anti-Semitic utterances, including his labeling Judaism a “gutter religion” and his allegations that Jews control Hollywood, Farrakhan “may not have been a popular figure here,” Henriques said. “But I would argue that with his prostate cancer and his being in Jamaica, his anti-Semitism diminished considerably. I don’t know if we got anything out of it and I don’t know if he got anything more out of it than the satisfaction of being recognized by a Jewish community in the land of his father’s birth. End of story.”
As he delivered his Friday night sermon from the bima on Nov. 1, Kaplan told the 50 people in attendance that his congregation was facing an ongoing debate “between the conservationists and the innovationists.”
“It is really up to us collectively to help plan that future,” said the rabbi. “We can’t really rely on any one person to do it for us. We have to take responsibility and work together and build some sort of social structure that can effectively channel our efforts.”