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Commenerating the 350th anniversary of the Jews of Jamaica and opening of the Jewish Heritage Center
By Ainsley Cohen Henriques
Director/Chairman of the Heritage Center Committee
In 1655 the English captured Jamaica. The island had been in the possession of the Colon family who were descendants of Christopher Columbus. By securing this important foothold in the Caribbean, The British were in reach of the Spanish fleets of gold and silver that sailed from the Spanish mainland. The English soon set about fortifying the large natural harbour now known as Kingston harbour. These activities together with the lenient Protestant policies of the Cromwell-led government in England allowed other religions to be practiced freely (and this included Judaism) and encouraged our Jewish ancestors to immigrate to Jamaica. They began to arrive 350 years ago. They were mainly Sephardim, Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Some were expelled in 1492 at the same time that Columbus sailed from Spain for his encounter with the New World. Others later foreswore their Converso guise, re-embracing the beliefs of their forefathers and fled from the Inquisition.
Now 350 years later, we recognize that our ancestors came from the fires and torture racks of the Inquisition, the blood baths of the pogroms, the uncertainties caused by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and even later from the gas chambers and the ovens of Europe. They came to Jamaica where we found tranquility and the ability to worship as Jews, to practice Judaism in peace.
After 350 years of rich Jewish life in our island home a special service of thanksgiving service was made in which a young tree of life, a Lignum Vitae sapling was planted, We prayed that it will be nurtured, as we have been to reach this occasion. We have officially opened the rest of the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center, whose foundations are based on these past 350 years.
The celebration of 350 years of the freedom to practice the beliefs of Judaism in a country is only equaled in the world by congregations of Jews in four other nations: Curacao (under the Dutch and now independent); New York, (then New Amsterdam, under the Dutch then under the English and now part of an independent nation, the USA); Britain in London, under Cromwell and then under the return of the Monarchy, and India. And last there is Jamaica, as a Monarchy, as a Crown Colony and now as an independent nation. Such is this rare achievement of the Jamaican people. The celebration we made was for all of us, Jew and Gentile, all of us together; for this we gave and give thanks.
There are many stories that could be shared as to our history, our achievements, our contributions to our national life, how and why and where we worshiped, where we lived, worked, died and buried our dead in more than a dozen cemeteries in the island. There are so many stories woven into the fabric of our rich national heritage - some of these stories adorn the walls of the permanent exhibition that was opened.
The story that must continue to be shared is the wonderful way as humans that we, the people of Jamaica, have each kept our beliefs and at the same time interacted as people, separate as people are, as individuals, yet drawn together by love, by business, by community, by friendship, by service to each other, by hardship and calamity and by just being people. It is a story that we must continue to regard, cherish and often repeat, not one to take for granted because Jamaicans are an example to rest of the world to follow, especially as we see the rise of intolerance across many lands resulting in the death of innocents in new genocides almost daily.
These past 350 years have had their struggles. The road through time has had its pot holes too but working on them has not been in vain, most have been filled, or circumvented, and have allowed us to reach this milestone. In the words of Marcus Garvey and other sages we have understood that we must know our history. Thankfully we can report that in recent years we have had published some of our great Jewish Jamaican history, which if future generations peruse, then they will not allow earlier mistakes to be repeated. And to ensure that there will be material for research for our historians of tomorrow we have created in this Heritage Centre our archives, to augment the national Archives, as a resource base for their work. These archives, the reference library and our Family History centre is available to all, whether from here or elsewhere, these are resources which we are willing to share regardless of the truths that they carry between their covers.
Holy Ark in Synagogue
Our sages tell us of Tzedik, (giving back), the responsibility of a people to build a better society. To this end all Jamaica and indeed the world will now understand that to have created the Jewish Heritage Center is therefore not just an expression of our ego but a real way of thanksgiving, of saying to all, thank you to all of Jamaica, for all have too been a part of the heritage. We want young Jamaica in particular to tour, to visit and experience both the heritage and also the study of Judaism, not for conversion, but for the understanding of what another's beliefs are, an understanding that will continue the respect that we each must have for the other, a part of their curricula and also a part of their socialization that is being denied in many other parts of the world, especially to the young.
We want our adults, from all across Jamaica, to come and see and learn about this heritage, some of which may have had its roots in their village, district or town. We want them to rejoice too with reality of their Spanish and Portuguese names, their genes where there is ancestry, and the customs enshrined in our culture, much as yet undefined.
We want the visitors to our island home to recognize, to see, to experience, that we are, as the some of the Jamaica Tourist Board advertisements state, we are more than a beach, we are a country, a country with a past, a history, roots, that most of them cannot match, yet we still keep hidden from ourselves. No more! The challenge is that all must come out of the closets of their own makings, to put each of your hands and heart into telling your stories, putting them in places to be shared with each other and with us and to be proud of who we all are, how we have lived together in this plural society, how we have created a nation not just out of many, one but out of many cultures, one culture. These will become the paving stones on our national road to peace.
In achieving the development of the centre there were tributes to those who helped, who contributed their time and their resources, their skills and their talents, and to the Wardens, Directors and members of the congregation who both contributed resources and allowed their hall and grounds to be used for these purposes as well, and in particular to the CHASE fund, a truly important national philanthropic entity, without whom there would have been no centre.
The hope is that we continue to live as one people, with respect for each other only more so.
from the Febuary 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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