Renaissance of Jamaicans returning to their Jewish roots

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The cruise ships don’t stop on the south side of Jamaica much anymore. They’re more likely to make port on the north shore, where the beaches are quite spectacular.

But that  routing change has deprived many of the cruise passengers from visiting the Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, the second oldest Jewish house of worship in the Caribbean and arguably, the most beautiful.

At least that’s the view of Wilfred Lindo, a native of Jamaica who has lived in Toronto since 1966. The Duke Street synagogue features the white sand floors that are distinctive among the old Caribbean synagogues, as well as a very attractive painted white exterior. There was a time when the shul was filled with visitors disembarking from cruise ships, who came to see the historic house of worship, pray there and even be honoured with aliyahs, Lindo said.

They would also come away with a better sense of the Jewish community’s history, which can be traced back all the way to the Spanish Inquisition. Lindo, who traces his family’s roots in Jamaica to the 1500s, will present his personal perspective on being Jamaican and Jewish at a public lecture at Darchei Noam Synagogue on Sunday, Oct. 18. His presentation is part 1 of a three-part series looking at “The Caribbean Jewish experience.”  Part 2 is scheduled for Nov. 22 and will examine Guatemala’s newest Jewish community, while part 3 will take place on Jan. 17, 2016 and will discuss the renewal of Jewish life in Suriname.

As for Lindo’s family, it was the Spanish Inquisition that prompted them to leave their homes in the Iberian Peninsula and seek better lives elsewhere. Lindo’s father’s family originally hailed from Spain, while his mother’s side – the Da Costa family – came from Portugal.

Forced to flee the Inquisition, they  lived as conversos (Christian converts) in public, but practised Judaism in private.

They lived that way for generations, until the day in 1655 when the English conquered the island from Spain, and ceased persecuting Jews.

From that time, the Jewish community grew, prospered and became an important part of island life. It could boast a member of Parliament and prominent individuals in all sorts of fields, from business, to accounting, law and more, said Lindo.

But over time, Jamaican Jews departed for more opportunities elsewhere. From a peak of around 3,000 in its heyday, the community has dwindled to only about 250 today. Jamaican Jews can now be found around the world, from Australia, to Mexico, to the United States to Canada.

Lindo made the move to Toronto in 1966 and over time, sponsored his seven other brothers to emigrate here as well. He still has family on the island and visits there every few years. Last year, he helped raise funds to upgrade the synagogue, the last remaining place of worship on an island that at its peak could boast eight such buildings.

Lindo, who serves as president of the Pride of Israel Synagogue benefit society, said that while the number of Jews on the island has decreased, in part because of intermarriage, he’s noticed an interesting phenomenon developing in recent years.

“A lot of native people have discovered their roots and are coming back to Judaism,” he said.

Paul Lungen, Canadian Jewish Newss