Jamaican Jewish History
By Ainsley Henriques
Jews were allowed to settle in Jamaica by the English after their capture of the Island in 1655. They built the first synagogue in Port Royal but unfortunately, due to a great earthquake, it collapsed on June 7, 1692.
The Neveh Shalom synagogue was built in Spanish Town shortly after the Bevis Marks synagogue, the first synagogue in London, England, and was completed in 1704. Spanish Town, then the capital, was home to the largest Jewish community in the Americas in the early 1700s.
Kingston was settled after the earthquake of 1692 and eventually became the capital of the Island in 1872. Jews started to live in the town situated on the large Kingston Harbor. At one time, there were 3 synagogues in the city, all destroyed by fire and earthquake. Presently the United Congregation boasts of a beautiful 100 year old building set in the Jewish Heritage Centre, the Shaare Shalom synagogue, with sand on its floor to remind us of our history.
Jews also settled in many towns across the Island. Today there are only 13 remaining Jewish cemeteries spread across the Island. This range of settlements also resulted in much assimilation. There is a huge number of Jamaicans that carry Jewish names and are cognizant of their Jewish ancestry. Jamaicans are possibly the most plural of all peoples in respecting each other’s right to worship as they please.
Chabad’s involvement in the Caribbean dates back nearly 60 years to 1957.
At the time, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, now the chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and the late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who went on to serve as a shaliach, or Chabad emissary, in Morocco, were sent by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to travel from island to island, bringing Torah literature and a personal connection from the outside Jewish community to Jewish people in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the years, young “Roving Rabbis” also hopped from island to Island—even making clandestine visits to Cuba.
In 2014, Rabbi Yaakov and Mushkee Raskin moved to Montego Bay, Jamaica. They are the first Chabad couple to move full-time to serve the local Jewish residents and the numerous tourists who flock year-round to Jamaica. To this very day, Chabad of Jamaica reaches out to hundreds & thousands of Jewish visitors.