A Look At The Vibrant Past Of Jamaica’s Jewish Community And The Great Challenge It Faces

By Rochelle Maruch Miller

It is evident at the outset that Ainsley Henriques is not the average Jamaican. Debonair, distinguished, and very much the gentleman, the 74-year-old Mr. Henriques has led Jamaica’s Jewish community–one that has, in its over 350 years, played an integral role in Jamaica’s history. As its doyen, he has served with distinction, dedicating his life to preserving the community’s sacred traditions. But for Henriques, who was born and raised in this beautiful country, the greatest challenge lies in preserving his community, which has seen its population significantly dwindle.

Over a century of migration and assimilation have taken their toll, diminishing the Jamaican Jewish community from its all-time high of 2,500 in 1882 to less than 200 today. Determined to breathe life into the community, Henriques organized a conference in January 2010 on the history of the Jews in the Caribbean and particularly in Jamaica, which was held in Kingston, the nation’s capital. It was the first event of its kind and attracted academics from all over the world. Portuguese Jews were among the first Europeans to settle the island. Under Spanish rule, they had to keep their religion a secret. It was only when England conquered Jamaica in the 17th century that Jews were allowed to practice their religion openly.

The local Jewish community flourished under British rule. Its members were primarily involved in commercial ventures but some apparently participated in organized piracy, launching attacks against the Spanish fleet with the consent of the British authorities. Ainsley Henriques says a distant cousin of his, Moshe Cohen Henriques, took part in one of the biggest pirate attacks in history and adds that some say this relative was responsible for orchestrating it. In that 1628 raid, a Dutch fleet captured the Spanish Treasury’s ships heading back home from the New World.

Gradually, Jews became involved in local politics and filled key positions. Their influence was so great that in 1849 the Jamaican Parliament recessed on Yom Kippur because many of its members were Jewish.

Despite the Jewish community’s successful integration–or perhaps because of it–at the end of the 19th century, it began to disappear. Jamaica did not become a main commercial center, and many of its Jews moved their businesses elsewhere. There was assimilation, too. Ainsley Henriques insists that if it weren’t for the education he received at home, he too might have lost his Jewish identity. His mother, who came from one of the most esteemed Jewish families on the island, remarried, and his stepfather was an observant Jew from Syria who kept kosher at home. That is why Henriques received a slightly more Jewish education than other community members.

Presently, Ainsley Henriques is Honorary Secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites, “United” because they did unite: Ashkenazi, or, as they were known, the English and German congregation, united with the Sephardim of Spanish and Portuguese Jews into one congregation. Mr. Henriques was president of the congregation many years ago as well as of Bnai Brith which is no more. He also serves as Hon. Consul for Israel in Jamaica. He chairs the board of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, is vice chair of the Council of the Institute of Jamaica, and chairs the Norman Washington Manley Foundation–and still finds the time to run his family business. And above all else, he is a devoted family man.

In addition to his job as a senior government official, Ainsley is an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Prior to becoming the Jewish community’s leader, he was active in Jewish organizations such as the Anti Defamation League.

In this interview with the Five Towns Jewish Times, Mr. Henriques affords our readers an enlightening perspective on Jewish Jamaica’s rich legacy and the contemporary challenges it faces.

RMM: Your ancestors were the Founding Fathers of Jamaica’s Jewish community. What information has been passed down to you about them? What can you tell us about your background?

AH: One ancestor arrived in 1745 as a Hebrew teacher; others served on the boards of synagogues (note “synagogues,” as there were two: Spanish and Portuguese. And English and German–and more than one of each). Much of what I know about them is from my own research, as there was not much oral history. A short version is, I grew up on a plantation, went to boarding school in Kingston, left after school for university in England, but had to work on farms for a year as a requirement to study agriculture. During university, I became president of the Jewish Club and a member of the board of the Jewish Undergraduate organization of England. I had a home in London with a survivor of the Shoah and her husband. Sent by the British to Lisbon, she had managed to get to Jamaica, and knew my stepfather’s family. She and her husband kept a kosher home, so I was exposed to a different Jewish life whenever I went to stay with them.

Upon returning to Jamaica I went to work in manufacturing, then farming, as well as other interests, experiencing a varied career. This included becoming a member of the board of the remaining congregation 35 years ago and president 33 years ago and still am a member and serve as Honorary Secretary.

RMM: What are some of the community’s unique features, its customs and traditions?

AH: The liturgy we follow is derived from the old Sephardic tradition with liberal inclusions. The synagogue is one of five in the West that has sand on the floor. Our tabernacle is made from coconut boughs. We keep all the holidays and hold services every Shabbat.

RMM: How is Shabbat celebrated?

AH: Traditionally as above, save on Rosh Chodesh Shabbat when we hold a talk and then enjoy soup after services in our museum.

RMM: What are the existing options for observing kashrut and taharat ha’mishpachah?

AH: We employed a rabbi after some 30 plus years without one so that we now have an increased attention to both adult and pre-b’nei mitzvah education. Keeping kosher is not easy; only one family still keeps kosher whilst others observe what they can readily. We do not have a mikveh and if we do have the occasion to have to use one, we use the mineral baths or the sea.

RMM: Of which of your accomplishments, during your tenure as president of the congregation, are you most proud?

AH: Not as president, but for the 350th anniversary, my wife and I created the Jewish museum in what now is the Jewish Heritage Center and which is now visited by thousands annually. There was the International Conference of the Jews of the Caribbean that I co-chaired with Professor Jane Gerber and I hosted in Kingston in 2010. There are some other activities that have impacted on Jewish and national life but in concert with others.

RMM: What are the major challenges facing Jamaica’s Jewish community?

AH: The congregation is shrinking in size. This has been due to assimilation and migration. When a congregation gets too small, it has a very little chance to continue. This is the challenge, how to keep it alive.

The congregation has shrunk considerably, from 1,500 to less than 200. However, the remnants are today possibly more communally active than they were 25 years ago in one sense, without an active B’nei Brith and WIZO that were still there then.

RMM: How would you describe Jamaica’s relationship with its Jewish citizens?

AH: Israel is a favorite place for Jamaicans to try to visit. Jamaica was good for the Jews. While they were persecuted elsewhere in the world, here they were greeted with open arms. The governments have held a largely neutral official position as a member of the non-aligned group of nations. Jamaica has been continually friendly in its relationship toward Israel.

RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?

AH: Having had the opportunity to research, understand, and inform both Jamaicans and the rest of the Jewish world in particular of the rich heritage and history of which I am a part of, I am proud to be a Jew in a country that practices respect for all religions and to be recognized as a Jew whilst being involved as I am in many aspects of national life as a Jamaican. v


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