23 July 2008

Barbados Synagogue & Museum Visit

As mentioned before, we had a several hour layover in Barbados on our way back from our honeymoon in the Caribbean. The only thing of which we knew that we wanted to visit was the synagogue and museum in Bridgetown, the capital. So, we took a cab (as we still had our luggage (it was still too early to check in)) to the synagogue.
When we arrived, we saw, as described nearly twenty years ago by Nancy Sharkey, "an
unprepossessing building of buff-colored coral stone and mortar tucked away on a side street in Barbados's capital, Bridgetown, and surrounded by the centuries-old graves of the island's Jewish settlers." Sharkey continues, "the building's exterior, with its balustraded roofline, lancet-shaped windows and thick walls with rounded corners, appears much as it did in the 1830's, the prosperous days of Barbados's Jewish community, which led the island's sugar industry."
So, it was nice being in there and, as it was the afternoon, I davened minhah there.
Sharkey further wrote
The first synagogue on the site was built about 1651 by Jews from Recife, Brazil, fleeing Portuguese lands to English territories during the Inquisition. The original building was destroyed in a hurricane in 1831, and rebuilt two years later. (Curaçao's synagogue, built in the 1660's, is the oldest continually operating synagogue in the hemisphere.) The Bridgetown synagogue, deconsecrated early in the century, was seized by the Barbados Government about five years ago and scheduled for demolition. But through the tenacity of the island's tiny Jewish community, it is now a Barbados National Trust property and is undergoing a $1 million restoration. The building, a short walk from the main shopping district, is to be rededicated as a synagogue when the restoration is finished by next winter. It will remain a National Trust property.
For more information, it has been written in a recent doctoral dissertation:
While the first purposely built synagogue in the British Isles, Bevis Marks was not the first in the English Empire. The first synagogue built in the English Empire, like that in the French Empire, was in the Caribbean. However, the first chapter of Jewish history in the English Caribbean is somewhat shrouded in mystery due to the shortage of documents and historic sites that have managed to survive unto this day. The English began colonizing Barbados in 1627 as part of its venture to compete against the Spanish in the Americas. It is not known exactly when the first Jews arrived in Barbados, but evidence suggests as early as 1629 as a possibility. Following the loss of Dutch Brazil to the Portuguese in 1654, the Barbados quasi-crypto-Jewish community experienced growth from refugees who resettled there. Congregation Nidhe Israel was officially founded in Bridgetown by 1656, following Cromwell’s policy of readmission.1
As far as the synagogue, specifically:
The earliest mention of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue is from a surveyor’s recorded dated from 1664, and mentions the building as already having been built. It was also recorded that the first Torah scrolls came from Amsterdam, demonstrating that the Barbados Jewish community had strong ties with the Jews in the Dutch Empire prior to the rise and dominance of London and its Jewish community. The Barbados community’s first rabbi was Eliahu Lopez, who came from Amsterdam in 1679, and later moved to Curaçao in 1693 to serve as the rabbi there. A second synagogue, Semah David, was built toward the end of the seventeenth century (again exact date unknown) in Speightstown to accommodate the island’s growing Jewish community. Semah David Synagogue was like Neve Shalom on Cura?ao since it was not a separate congregation from the first (Nidhe Israel in Bridgetown) but merely a branch to accommodate more people. In 1739, Semah David was destroyed by an anti-Semitic mob after a dispute occurred between a Jew and a non-Jewish individual on the island. Nearly one hundred years later, Nidhe Israel along with many of the congregation’s records was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831. A second Nidhe Israel Synagogue was built in 1833, which is used by the congregation today. However, the newer building bears little architectural resemblance to the older one. No known description survives of the seventeenth century synagogues of Nidhe Israel and Semah David.2
Throughout this post, you can see various pictures of the synagogue, which is, apparently, the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere still in use.
Speaking of in use, there was a sign on the synagogue that says "Friday Night Services Are Conducted at Shaare Zedek Synagogue" located at "Rockley New Road, Christ Church" with telephone numbers provided (427-7611/228-2102) for information. The museum director told us there are only Friday night services at the historic synagogue from November through March. The rest of the year, there are held at Shaare Zedek. Saturday morning services are not held at the historic synagogue (as far as I know). (Online, there is an article that says in "the winter months, the Jewish community holds its services in the old synagogue building, which, as in days of old, has no air conditioning. But during the hot months of summer, they retreat to the smaller, but air conditioned, Shaare Tzedek for their services.")the outside of the Nidhe Israel Museum
We then headed over to the nearby Nidhe Israel Museum (adult admission price is $12.50, btw, so it's not cheap), which was nice-looking and new, as well, having opened in February of this year. As of this time, the museum consists of one large room with various informational paneling (such as "The Price of Tolerance", "The Days of Intolerance", "The Unknown Jewish Contribution to Barbados", "Jews Coming to the New World", "A Spiced World", "Jews and Sugar", "The Jews as Merchants in the City", "A Story of Hope", and "Saving the Synagogue Once Again"), although they hope to add an art gallery and a Jewish library upstairs. The building in which the museum is located was built in 1750, but they were planning on tearing it down. When they found that behind the walls, the building was originally made up of coral stone, they decided to retain it, as it reminded them of Jerusalem stone, although now they are trying to get some actual Jerusalem stone, so people can see what that is like. The museum's hours are are 9-4, Monday - Saturday.
After we walked through the museum, we had nowhere else to go for a couple of hours and it intermittently rained, so we chatted with the director for a while, finding out that the
Jewish community's size is, during the summer, about 20-22 and about triple that during the rest of the year. Also, there are many Barbadians who are of Jewish descent, with some wanting to reclaim their Jewish heritage. The director said that if one were interested in being a rabbi here, one would need to do something on the side (like conversion stuff).
The director also mentioned to us that they had recently discovered a mikveh there (and nowthe excavation of the mikveh reported yesterday by Reuters), which, built in 1652, was the first in the western hemisphere. When they uncovered it, the director told us, it was greenish, and then there were a lot of mosquitoes. In order to finish off the mosquitoes, they had to bring in fish to eat the mosquitoes' larvae.
I think that
Barbados definitely needs a kosher place to eat, especially during winter, the main tourist season. And, yes, I did consider going down there and being a rabbi. However, before I think of going to be a shul/community rabbi anywhere, I would like to get some experience first (although I am thinking of heading into campus/Hillel work for the time being).
1 - Barry Louis Stiefel, "The History and Preservation of the Synagogues of the Atlantic World, 1636-1822" (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 2008), 98.
2 - Ibid., 99.

Our pictures from the synagogue and museum.
Further reading:
Donald H. Harrison, "Who Were the Bearded Ones: Reclaiming the Jewish Past in Barbados"
Lauren Kramer, "Jewish Island Spirit" 9 November 2006 Jerusalem Post


Car Rental Barbados said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rachael A said...

This is a great entry -- thanks for all the information!
Hope to visit the synagogue myself. :) Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Have visited the Barbados Synagogue and got a good tour of the building and its grounds, including the burial ground.
This was in the late 90's.
Considerable restoration had already been done and I was surprised to see now, that more is needed.
(the Bronfman family were major donors towards the initial restoration)
I certainly hope that it can be maintained in the future, as a monument to Jewish life in the Americas.

josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
josh_909 said...

Thanks for this post, I am a Jew currently working/living in Barbados, and today is Yom Kippur. I planned on trying to attend at Nihdre, but they probably don't hold services there today, thanks for the info.