The Sephardic history of Barbados
With its white sandy beaches, blue skies, and year-long warm weather, it’s difficult to imagine that the island of Barbados was once home to a thriving Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. Top hats and morning suits seem at odds with the surrounding environment, and yet, the physical remnants of this Jewish community make it clear that Jews once found a way to not only live on this island, but for a time to even thrive there. The original community was at its height of activity in the eighteenth century when there were perhaps as many as a thousand Jews living there. It was during the boom years of the sugar industry. However, with the industry’s decline in the nineteenth century, the community slowly moved away.
The name of the community was Nidhe Israel, the ‘Scattered of Israel.’ It may have been a reference to the founders of the community, many of whom were refugees from fallen Dutch Brazil in 1654 (similar to Shearith Israel, ‘Remnant of Israel’ in New Amsterdam/York). They constructed their lovely synagogue at that time, making it the first in the British Empire, long before even Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. It is not only the oldest remaining synagogue in the New World, but also the most impressive Spanish & Portuguese religious complex I’ve ever visited. On site there is the synagogue, what used to be the school house (now a visitor centre), the original Mikve (ritual bath), and also the community cemetery, all surrounded by a wall.
Amongst the beautiful gravestones was one that made my pulse jump as the name on it was familiar to me. Rabbi Rephael Haim Yitzhak Carigal, was born in Hebron in 1733, though spent much of his adult life traveling to different communities, in an effort to help raise funds for Jews living in Israel. His travels took him so far that he even came to London, and from there to the New World. He subsequently served for a couple of years in Newport RI, at the then newly built Touro Synagogue, where he became friends with Ezra Stiles, future president of Yale University. He then lived for several more years in Barbados, where he died in 1777, and was laid to rest in the community cemetery.
The great condition and accessibility of the property is due to the heroic and dedicated work of Barbadian Sir Paul Altman (recently knighted in England!). Most Jews left the Island by the late nineteenth century (the synagogue archives are now cared for by the London S&P Sephardi Community), and the synagogue was sold off by the last Jew there in 1929. In 1985, when the building was set to be razed, the new Jews of the Island petitioned for its preservation and it was handed over to the National Trust. Sir Paul (his family arrived on the island from Poland in 1931) spearheaded the efforts that restored the synagogue (making it look as it once did), established the visitor centre, and even unearthed a forgotten Mikve. He is now coordinating efforts to expand the synagogue property to include a new community hall and public park.
The community today is made up of thirty individuals. The modern-day inhabitants of the synagogue do not follow the rite of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews (nor is their service Orthodox), though they are deeply committed to keeping the memory of the original founders alive, and to maintaining a Jewish community. They welcome visitors to join them for Shabbat evening services. The history of the local Sephardic community is researched by the incredibly friendly and hard working local historian Dr. Karl Watson. I thank him and Sir Paul for taking the time to personally share their passion with me when I visited in February 2016.
As someone who loves the history and traditions of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, I am grateful to the new Jewish community of Barbados for all they have done to restore and protect the site. Thanks to their efforts it continues to inform historians and to inspire visitors. As I walked the grounds of Nidhe Israel, I imagined its once bustling activity. I could see people coming from synagogue, children studying in the school, and funeral circuits in the cemetery. It must have been a dynamic setting with the entire cycle of Jewish life sharing the same space, energising all those who lived there. While much of that activity is now in the past, I found that it is still very much present for those who wish to see it.