The Unlikely Legacy of Judaism in the Caribbean

The story of the Jewish people is, and always has been, one of resilience. And perhaps nowhere is this legacy of perseverance more evident—or surprising—than in the Jewish communities of the Caribbean, whose sacred sites photographer Wyatt Gallery has amassed in his new book, Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean: The Legacy of Judaism in the New World. To him, offering a reminder of the Jewish people’s struggles to persist in the practice and safekeeping of their faith is more important now than ever: “From the 1500s until the 1700s,” he says, “Jews couldn’t enter anywhere; no one wanted us. [Now,] we need to look out for those who are in trouble, and those who are refugees, because we were once refugees.”

The photographs trace a tenuous yet vibrant history—one largely catalyzed by the Spanish Inquisition, and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula beginning in the 15th century—that would see Western Sephardic Jews import their traditions to the New World, where they trickled onto islands like Curaçao, Barbados, Jamaica, and to coastal South American countries like Suriname. And though eventual emigration to the United States and Canada has since slowed the pulse of these once-thriving communities, the physical testaments to their tenacity—sand-floored synagogues, and all—live on.

Former Temple Emanuel, Willemstad, Curaçao (1867) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Former Temple Emanuel, Willemstad, Curaçao (1867)

Originally, Peter Stuyvesant didn’t want to allow Jews into Curaçao in 1651, a Dutch-controlled island then under his supervision as the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland (which would eventually become New York). But the Dutch government—then one of the only western European countries willing to openly let Jews in to its territories—persuaded him to change his mind. “It totally mirrors what’s happening now in our society [with the refugee crisis]” says Gallery. “Jews were looking for a place to be able to practice their religion freely, and to make a living, and the Dutch gave them that.”

Ultimately, Jews were allowed onto the island, where they would establish Congregation Mikvé Israel—a structure which would go on to become the oldest continually used synagogue in the western hemisphere—and in 1864, one-third of Curaçao’s Jewish population left Congregation Mikvé Israel to establish the new Dutch Reformed Congregation Emanuel, pictured here. It’s been used as the Public Prosecutor’s Office since 1999.

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao (1732) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao (1732)

Perhaps one of the most distinctive qualities of the Caribbean’s synagogues are their sand floors. “Although various theories exist for the origins of this tradition,” Gallery writes, “popular belief is that the sand was originally used to muffle the sounds during secret prayer services held in private homes during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.” Mikvé-Israel Emanuel, pictured here, was modeled on its mother synagogue, the Portuguese Synagogue (or, Esnoga) in Amsterdam, completed in 1675; it’s one of just four remaining synagogues in the Caribbean with sand-covered floors.

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao (1732) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao (1732)

Gallery was working in Haiti photographing the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake when he first had the idea for the project. “I saw their grand cathedral [Our Lady of the Assumption] crumble to ruins, and because part of it was still standing, you could see how majestic the architecture had been, and what a tragic loss it was,” he says. “And that’s when it really hit me, standing in the rubble of this cathedral: this could happen to any of these synagogues, and there’s no professional photographs of them.” From a young age, Gallery’s paternal grandparents had instilled in him the importance of preserving Jewish history, and honoring the struggles of the Jewish people. Coupled with the photographer’s interest in religious sites, and his already-frequent trips to the Caribbean, “everything just came together.” In this image, light from the deep-blue stained glass windows, which were restored in 2013, illuminates the sandy floors of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.

Jewish Cemetery, Oranjestad, St. Eustatius (1739) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Jewish Cemetery, Oranjestad, St. Eustatius (1739)

Few practices are more integral, or more sacred, to the Jewish people than the proper burial of its dead, and the Jewish Cemetery pictured here, in Oranjestad, St. Eustatius, is testament to that fact. Dating from 1739, the burial site sits above the city of Oranjestad at the foot of the Quill, a 2,000-foot-high dormant volcano. Though there are fewer than two dozen well-preserved gravestones left, those that remain—like that of the Hazan (cantor) Jacob Robles—are almost entirely intact.

Honen Dalim Synagogue, Oranjestad, St. Eustatius (1739) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Honen Dalim Synagogue, Oranjestad, St. Eustatius (1739)

The Honen Dalim synagogue, on the island of St. Eustatius, has long ceased to function as a site of prayer, and while there’s no longer a Jewish population on the island, their legacy on St. Eustatius is one well worth preserving, according to Gallery. “[This book] isn’t just a contribution to Jewish history,” he says. “It’s also a contribution to Caribbean history, and to American history, too.” Jews in the Caribbean were largely employed as merchants, and in St. Eustatius, they illegally smuggled arms, ammunition, and supplies to the American rebels during the American revolutionary war, helping to turn the tide—a little-known fact, even today.

Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Bridgetown, Barbados (1660s/1833) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Bridgetown, Barbados (1660s/1833)

Although Barbados’s Jewish community has more or less died out, the country’s Nidhe Israel Synagogue remains, and it’s distinct from other Caribbean synagogues for a few reasons: It’s the only historic synagogue in the Caribbean, for example, that no longer features the traditional sand-covered wooden floors (at some point, they were replaced by swanky checkered marble and bluestone). But its smaller, harder-to-spot details—like the six brass pineapples crowning the Tebáh (reader’s platform), a symbol often found in Charleston, South Carolina, and a clock, which resembles one in London’s Bevis Marks synagogue—pay tribute to Jewish communities the world over.

Beraka ve Shalom ve Gemilut Hasadim, Charlotte Amalie St. Thomas, USVI (1833) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Beraka ve Shalom ve Gemilut Hasadim, Charlotte Amalie St. Thomas, USVI (1833)

St. Thomas’s Beraka ve Shalom ve Gemilut Hasadim Synagogue—the second-oldest continuous-use synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and the oldest in continuous use under the American flag—still serves a deeply sacred purpose, housing one of the few Sephardic Torahs in all the Caribbean. Originally built under Danish rule, the temple was completed in 1833, after a fire tore through St. Thomas in 1831, but the original building was erected in 1796. “Admiral [George B.] Rodney [of the British Royal Navy] wrote in his journal [during the American Revolution,] that if it weren’t for these arms-smuggling Jews that he called ‘vipers,’ Britain surely would have won the war,” says Gallery.

Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, Hunt’s Bay, Jamaica (1672) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, Hunt’s Bay, Jamaica (1672)

The oldest burial ground in Jamaica, the Hunt’s Bay Jewish cemetery served as the final resting place for many of the Port Royal Jewish community’s deceased. They continued to ferry their dead here even after the earthquake of 1692, when many had relocated to Kingston and Spanish Town. The grounds remained in use until the early 19th century, and epitaphs are written in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, and English—another testament to the diversity of the Caribbean’s Jewish communities.

There are ongoing efforts by both Gallery and others to preserve these cemeteries: The nonprofit Jamaican Jewish Cemetery Preservation Fund, started by a New York-based architect, leads volunteer missions to Jamaica to record the information on every single gravestone. Gallery, meanwhile, uses his exhibitions and lectures as a means to bring awareness to the nonprofit, and he has also started to lead tour groups to the places documented in his book. “I’m taking groups of 12 people to these historic sites in person and letting them experience them firsthand, and using those tours to give money back to these communities,” he says.

Shaare Shalom Synagogue, Kingston, Jamaica (Rebuilt between 1911-1913) (© WYATT GALLERY)

Shaare Shalom Synagogue, Kingston, Jamaica (Rebuilt between 1911-1913)

Talitot (Jewish prayer shawls, also known as tefilot) hang over the mahogany wood Tebáh, opposite the Hechal (Torah ark) inside the Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, Jamaica. The temple, now home to the United Congregation of Israelites, was the first amalgamated synagogue in Jamaica, merging the capital’s Askhenazi and Sephardi congregations after both lost their respective synagogues to the Great Fire of Kingston in 1882. Today, it’s the only active remaining synagogue in the country, and continues to serve its “small but active” Jewish population, according to Gallery.

Ruins of Berakha ve Shalom, Jodensavanne, Suriname (1685) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Ruins of Berakha ve Shalom, Jodensavanne, Suriname (1685)

It may look like a pile of Roman ruins, but the remains of Suriname’s Berakha ve Shalom Synagogue—the first synagogue of architectural significance in the New World—mark an important moment in the country’s collective history. The synagogue’s town, Jodensavanne (Jews’ Savannah), was nicknamed ‘Jerusalem by the River’ and its citizens (nearly 2,000 by the mid-18th century) were a driving economic force in the region. Until its decimation by fire in 1832, Jodensavanne remained a flourishing, autonomous Jewish society, something the world wouldn’t truly see again until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Jodensavanne Cemetery Funerary Art, Jodensavanne, Suriname (1683) (© Wyatt Gallery)

Jodensavanne Cemetery Funerary Art, Jodensavanne, Suriname (1683)

According to representatives of the community, there are fewer than 200 identifying Jews in Suriname today, but its once-powerful contingent has left a lasting imprint. Just a short walk from the ruins of Jodensavanne’s Berakha ve Shalom synagogue, lies a grave bearing the symbol of the Kohen Hands (a signifier that the deceased is a descendant of the high-ranking Temple priests). The second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Suriname, the grounds contain a total of 462 gravestones dating from 1683 to 1873, inscribed in languages as far-ranging as Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, and Aramaic, and crafted from marble and bluestone imported from Italy and Amsterdam.

The region is incredibly diverse, home to many cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”It’s funny that some people in the Caribbean don’t know anything about this part of [the area’s] history,” says Gallery. “That’s always been my interest in working in the Caribbean. [I want to show off] the diverse culture that exists there; I want to show people [more than] what they’ve been spoon fed.”