Jewish Heritage and History in the Caribbean

Synagogue, Curacao
Howard Lifshitz/CC by 2.0

Jewish travelers may not flock to the islands on Passover and Hanukkah like Christians do around Easter and Christmas, but Jews love to vacation in the Caribbean as much as anyone -- and have been a part of Caribbean history since the earliest days of European exploration and settlement. Sephardic Jewish communities dating back more than three centuries can still be found in the Caribbean, which also is home to the oldest synagogue in the Americas.

Jewish Caribbean History

The Inquisition banished Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, and the resulting diaspora saw many seek refuge in more tolerant countries, like Holland. Dutch Jews eventually settled in the Netherlands' Caribbean islands, notably Curacao. Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, is home to Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, originally constructed in 1674 and a prominent stop on downtown tours of the city. The current building dates from 1730, and Curacao still has an active Jewish community along with a Jewish cultural museum and a historic cemetery.

St. Eustatius, a smaller Dutch island, also once had a sizable Jewish population: the ruins of the former Honen Dalim synagogue (circa 1739) are a popular tourist attraction. Alexander Hamilton, born on the island and later one of the founding fathers of the United States, had strong connections to the island's Jewish community, sparking rumors that he himself was a Jew.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Jewish traders were encouraged by the British to settle in colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, Suriname, and the English possessions of the Leeward Islands. Suriname became a magnet for Jews expelled by the Portuguese in Brazil, lured in part because the British offered them full citizenship in the empire as settlers. Barbados is still home to a historic Jewish cemetery -- thought to be the oldest in the hemisphere -- and a 17th-century building that once housed the island's synagogue and is today a library.

The Nidhei Israel Synagogue in Jamaica is thought to be the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, consecrated in 1654.

Jews also lived on French Martinique and St. Thomas and St. Croix, now part of the United States but originally settled by Denmark. There is an active synagogue (circa 1833) in the St. Thomas capital of Charlotte Amalie. Visitors will immediately notice the sand floors: this is not an homage to the island location, but rather a holdover from the Inquisition, when Jews had to meet in secrecy and sand was used to muffle sound.

There are also three synagogues in Havana, Cuba, which once was home to 15,000 Jews (most fled when Castro's Communist regime took power in the 1950s). Several hundred still live in the Cuban capital, however. Here are a few fascinating historical facts: Francisco Hilario Henríquez y Carvajal, Jew, briefly served as president of the Dominican Republic, while Freddy Prinz and Geraldo Riviera are among several prominent Jews from Puerto Rico to have risen to stardom.

Early Jewish immigrants were also heavily involved in the production of that most Caribbean of spirits, rum, putting their knowledge of agriculture to work in the New World. John Nunes, a Jew from Jamaica, was one of the founders of the Bacardi distillery in Cuba, while Storm Portner was one of the first sugar-cane producers in Haiti.

While Jewish populations in many Caribbean islands have declined from historic levels, communities of Jews have grown in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- including many transplants from the mainland.