Category Archives: News

The Jewish Community of Jamaica

The Shaare Shalom Synagogue in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. (Dana Evan Kaplan)
The Shaare Shalom Synagogue in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. (Dana Evan Kaplan)

The Jews of Jamaica make up a small but vibrant religious community centered today in the capital of Kingston. While the core of the community traces its ancestry to the Iberian peninsula, and the Jewish exodus that began in the late 15th century, Jamaican Jews today come from Poland, France, Italy, Africa, Israel, Turkey, and many other places. They have their own unique recipes for the most beloved traditional Jamaican dishes — including ackee and saltfish, fried bammy (a cassava flatbread), breadfruit, patties, potato pudding, dukono pastry and, of course, jerk chicken — and its main synagogue is one of only a handful in the world with a sand floor. While some 22,000 Jews once lived on the island, the Jewish population today numbers just about 450 people.

Many Jamaican Jews trace their origins to Portugal, where their ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism by King Manuel I in 1497. Although legally prohibited from emigrating, many still found ways to leave, moving to Spanish-Portuguese Jewish communities in Hamburg, London, Livorno (Italy), Amsterdam — and especially Bayonne, an the area of southwest France near the Iberian peninsula. Over the next 100 years, some of these former conversos (forced converts) came from Amsterdam to the Caribbean — including Jamaica, settling in Port Royal, Spanish Town, Montego Bay, and Kingston, as well numerous smaller towns throughout the island. Although Jamaica was then a Spanish colony, it was controlled by Christopher Columbus’ family, who refused to allow the Inquisition to establish a base on the island. Practicing Judaism was technically illegal, but there was no governmental mechanism for prosecuting suspected heretics.

After the British colonized Jamaica in 1655, another wave of Jewish immigrants arrived. Under the British, it became legal to practice Judaism, which in turn led to the establishment of the island’s first synagogue in Port Royal, a bustling commercial center known as a home base for pirates. Little is known about this synagogue, which was destroyed along with much of the city in an earthquake and tsunami in 1692.

A skull and crossbones on the grave of David de Leon at the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery in Jamaica. (Laura Leibman, courtesy Jewish Atlantic World Database.)

Just across the bay from Port Royal is the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, the oldest Jewish burial ground in Jamaica. Seven graves in the cemetery bear the skull and crossbones, leading some to suggest that there were Jewish pirates looting Spanish ships. According to this theory, the Jewish pirates of Jamaica were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition and attacked Spanish shipping out of a desire for revenge. The Jewish pirate mentioned most frequently was Moses Cohen Henriques, who was able to steal shipments of gold and silver from Spanish boats off of the coast of what is today Cuba in 1628. Henriques also set up his own pirate Island off the coast of Brazil and worked with Captain Henry Morgan in Jamaica after 1654. But much of this history is undocumented and popular writers have exaggerated or invented much of the story.

The Jamaican Jewish community thrived during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Under British rule, Jews flourished by selling sugar, vanilla, tobacco, gold, rum, and other products. But by the early 20th century, the economy began a slow decline, and many Jamaican Jews emigrated to the United States, England and Australia. At the community’s peak in 1881, approximately 22,000 Jews lived among Jamaica’s 580,000 residents.

Today, there are an estimated 200-450 Jews in a total population of over 3 million, most of them concentrated in Kingston. For roughly a century since its establishment following a merger of two other communities in 1921, the Shaare Shalom Synagogue in downtown Kingston was the only functioning synagogue in the country. (Chabad opened a center in the tourist destination Montego Bay in 2014.) The synagogue property includes a Jewish heritage center and a memorial garden, whose relocated tombstones date back to the 18th century. The ark contains 13 Torah scrolls, many of them from other synagogues in Jamaica that closed or merged.

Shaare Shalom is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in the world with sand floors, many of them in the Caribbean. Sand floor synagogues typically have a wood base covered in sand. Since a good deal of sand is lost through attrition, the supply requires replenishing every number of years.

Audrey Massias tries to uncover Jewish graves at a cemetery in Spanish Town, Jamaica. (Dana Evan Kaplan)

The origin of this practice is shrouded in mystery, with the explanations offered ranging from practical to historic to midrashic. The custom may have originated in Amsterdam, where sand was used to dry mud on people’s shoes. Others have suggested that sand symbolizes the terrain of the Sinai Desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after the Exodus. Some also believe that sand symbolizes God’s promise to Abraham to make the Jews as populous as the sands of the sea. But the most common explanation is that the practice originated in the early 1600s in Brazil, where conversos who had returned to Judaism were trying to retain their ancestors’ traditions while subject to the hostile eyes of ecclesiastical authorities.

Many observers have commented on the similarities between Judaism and Rastafarianism, a religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s and was popularized by Bob Marley and reggae music. Some branches of Rastafarianism focus on the Hebrew Bible and emphasize themes of freedom and justice. The Rastafarians also believe that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the messiah, based on his being a descendant of King Solomon. This explains the use of shared symbols common to both Judaism and Rastafarianism, including the Star of David and the Lion of Judah.

In 1969, the Jewish community established an international school called Hillel Academy as a way to stop fighting among local Jewish leaders. The academy is considered among the best in the country and is Jamaica’s largest international school, with 700 students from over 40 countries.

Students at Kingston’s Hillel Academy, a school established by the Jamaican Jewish community in 1969. (Dana Evan Kaplan)

Several Jamaican Jews rose to political prominence in the mid-20th century. Neville Ashenheim served as the first ambassador to the United States after Jamaica won its independence from Britain in 1962, serving in the post until 1967. (Ashenheim’s great-grandfather, Lewis Ashenheim, was the editor of the first Jewish newspaper in the West Indies.) Mayer Matalon was one of the most important advisors to the Jamaican government in the 1970s and owned many businesses, especially in construction. Matalon’s brother, Eli Matalon, served in several government posts, including mayor of Kingston, minister of education, and minister of national security and justice.

But the 1970s saw a particularly drastic exodus of Jamaican Jews after then Prime Minister Michael Manley — seen by some as a leader in the style of Fidel Castro — moved the country toward socialism and flirted with revolution. Under Manley’s rule, much of the Jamaican elite left the country. When the 1980 election brought Edward Seaga to power, significant numbers of those elites returned. But many others did not, including many of the leaders of the Jewish community. Though the community today is but a fraction of its former size, its impact on Jamaica endures.

Sad fate of a 140-year-old Jewish property in Bangladesh

By Joseph Jude Edward

APRIL 20, 2023

This building is located in 3 Strand Road, Chittagong (Chattogram) 4000, Bangladesh. The building is at the entrance of Sadarghat Road approximately 100 meters away from the General Post Office (GPO).

Looking back into the history, in 1881, the Ezekiel family established their business as sugar manufacturers and distillers. Then, on April 18, 1929, David Ezekiel had executed a power of attorney in favor of his nephew, Solomon Ezekiel. At that time David was the proprietor of two businesses, one known as Davidson & Co. that continued on in Calcutta, and the other known as S. Ezekiel & Co. that continued on in Chittagong. Both the businesses traded in general stores and wines and spirits.

The Ezekiel family built the building in Chittagong during the time of the Bengal Presidency, which was officially the Presidency of Fort William and later Bengal Province, a subdivision of the British Empire in India. After the India/Pakistan partition in 1947, their business continued to stay in operation in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). However, shortly after the India/Pakistan partition in 1947, all the members of this family migrated to other countries. At that time there were only 5 to 6 Jewish families left in the whole of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Within the Ezekiel & Co. building in Chittagong, there was a store and other family businesses. Their main occupation was sugarcane cultivation and making alcoholic beverages in Jessore, Kushtia and Nadia areas. Davidson & Co (later incorporated as Davidsons Ltd), became the forerunner of Carew & Co under the Pakistan government. After the Independence of Bangladesh, the government of Bangladesh later nationalized the distillery at Darsana in 1973 which is currently known as Carew & Co. (Bangladesh) Ltd.

The Ezekiel & Co, building is over 140 years old. It carries the identity and heritage of a Jewish people who once lived in Chittagong.

The building was reported to be recently demolished, but several individuals from Chittagong have claimed the building is still standing.

Meanwhile, this message from Mrs. Jo Cohen provides more history:

“I found the article on the family very interesting. I had not heard about them before, but this seems to explain Shalva Weil’s assumption that my husband’s family, the Cohens of Rajshahi, sold liquor. She must have confused the two. The Cohens sold bicycles and also repaired bicycles and motorcycles, and sold spare parts and household goods like paraffin lamps and Primus stoves.

My father, Philippe E. Orian, was employed by Carew & Company after WWII to run the sugar factory at Darsana, just over the border of what was then East Pakistan. He set up the distillery and pharmaceutical works. I lived in Darsana as a very small child, and one of my earliest memories is being rushed out of the house by my parents late one night when there was quite a severe earthquake.

We had a big white two storied house with a wide verandah, and a big garden. I remember gul mohur trees, hibiscus, jasmine and plumeria, golden Orioles building their nests in the palm trees beside the lawn, jackfruit, guavas, and huge papayas. Papa was fond of hunting, and I had a small coat made from the skin of hares that he had shot.

We had to come to Calcutta for any shopping, travelling by train. I still remember the green imitation leather that covered the seats, the smell of the smoke from the coal-fired engine and the grit that would get into my eyes, the dip and swoop of the electric wires on poles beside the tracks, and the way we would rush to have a bath when we arrived! I must have been six or seven years old when we left Darsana, and though I visited Bangladesh with my husband, I have never been back. Childhood memories and a good deal of nostalgia are all that remain”.

This video was received that seems to show the building is still standing, but its future fate is unknown:

Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance formed in the aftermath of Kulanu conference

SAJA seeks to unite the continent’s emerging communities.


Participants at the Kulanu gathering in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, earlier this month. Credit: Serge Etele.

(December 30, 2022 / JNS) – The Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance was founded this month, with the goal of facilitating ties among the continent’s Jewish groups. The organization will include representatives from Tanzania, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and Cameroon.

The SAJA was established after representatives of Jewish communities across sub-Saharan Africa gathered for the first time in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, this month to discuss various aspects of Judaism and Jewish life in the region.

SAJA has a temporary board with Mordreck Maersara from Zimbabwe currently serving as acting president. The group aims to draft a constitution and hold elections for a permanent board in the next six months. It also has a vice president and treasurer, and intends to add more positions to the roster after the constitution is finalized.

Maersara told JNS, “Our goal is to help each other by discussing both shared successes and challenges to aid each other to grow in our Judaism across Africa.”

Click here to read the full article on the Jewish News Syndicate website.

Zambia To Get First Rabbi In Six Decades

December 28, 2022

Rabbi Mendy and Rivky Hertzel
Rabbi Mendy and Rivky Hertzel

Rabbi Mendy and Rivky Hertzel will move to Zambia early next year to establish a Chabad House and assist the small but thriving Jewish community in the southern African nation. Zambia has not had a rabbi in over 60 years.

Rabbi Hertzel told JNS, “In February of this year, they tasked me to go to Zambia and investigate the possibility of establishing a permanent Chabad presence here. After a three-month stay, I saw firsthand that the country was a good fit for us to establish a Chabad House. So, I will be moving to Africa very soon and we are looking forward to this.”

Mendy is from the Golan Heights and his wife hails from Alaska. The newlywed couple will oversee operations in Zambia, joining the ranks of more than a hundred countries and territories where Chabad is active.

There are an estimated 100-150 Jews in the country of almost 20 million people. The Jewish community has diverse roots, including South African and Israeli ex-pats working in a variety of professions, and around 30-50 are Zambian citizens.

Jewish community members in Zambia, including Shlomo Abutbul, center, welcomed Rabbi Mendy Hertzel, right, to Lusaka on Purim.
Jewish community members in Zambia, including Shlomo Abutbul, center, welcomed Rabbi Mendy Hertzel, right, to Lusaka on Purim.

The first Jews to arrive in Zambia were Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe (mostly Lithuania) who migrated in the 19th century when it was a British colony. A few Sephardim also came, including the Katzenellenbogen family from Germany.

The main waves of migration came during the several diamond and gold rushes; other newcomers were pioneers in the cattle industry, copper mining and agriculture. Jewish merchants were active.

Some of the descendants of the early Jewish settlers still live in Zambia. The nation had its first Jewish wedding in 1905. During World War II, a few Holocaust survivors arrived, mostly from Germany and Lithuania fleeing Nazi persecution, seeking refuge in the furthest place they could reach.

The Jewish population peaked in the 1960s at around 2,000. However, the community dwindled as part of a larger white emigration. Many Zambian Jews moved to the United Kingdom, Australia or Israel.

Yerachmiel Glazer, a Zambian Jew who had extensive correspondence with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson about the Jewish community there, speaks with Hertzel at the Kinus Hashluchim. Glazer was the Rebbe's first emissary to Zambia.
Yerachmiel Glazer, a Zambian Jew who had extensive correspondence with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson about the Jewish community there, speaks with Hertzel at the Kinus Hashluchim. Glazer was the Rebbe’s first emissary to Zambia.

Lusaka, the capital and largest city, historically had the largest Jewish population. The second biggest community was in Livingstone, near Victoria Falls.

The community in Livingstone had around 200 Jewish members at its peak and had a distinct identity, maintaining closer ties with the Jews in Bulawayo (now in Zimbabwe) because it was nearer, back when Zambia and Zimbabwe were Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, respectively, under British rule (1911-64).

A synagogue built in Livingstone in the 1920s is now a church. A Star of David over the main entrance still remains visible, attesting to the historic Jewish presence.

Yerachmiel Glazer, a Zambian Jew who had extensive correspondence with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson about the Jewish community there, speaks with Hertzel at the Kinus Hashluchim. Glazer was the Rebbe's first emissary to Zambia.
The synagogue in Livingstone, Zambia, today.