BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — The end-of-the-year holidays are fast approaching in the northern hemisphere, with many already dreaming of somewhere warm to go. For Americans and Brits, the Caribbean – from Jamaica to the Dominican Republic – has long been popular for its sandy white beaches and fun in the sun.
But people came to the region long before there were Club Meds or luxury cruise tours. In fact, for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution – first during the Inquisition and then hundreds of years later before the Holocaust — the islands have long been a refuge. As early as the 17th century, a number of Jewish settlements rose up in the Caribbean, including in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curacao as well as in British-controlled Jamaica and Barbados, whose Jewish community dates back to 1628.
On a recent visit to the island nation, Mordehai Amihai-Bavis, Israel’s Ambassador to Barbados (yes, Israel has an ambassador to Barbados and other Caribbean islands, although he is based out of Israel’s Mission to the UN in New York) said at the local Shaare Tzedek Synagogue: “I have visited many Caribbean islands, many of which have beautiful synagogues, but sadly no longer any Jewish communities left. But you, the Jews of Barbados,” he exclaimed, “You are still here!”
Since independence in 1966, which Barbados celebrates this week, the island has maintained good relations with Israel. Amihai-Bavis describes the Jewish state’s relationship with the nation as “very friendly.”
President Reuven Rivlin reiterated the sentiment this week in a letter to Barbados Governor-General Elliot Belgrave to mark the country’s Independence Day: “On behalf of the people of Israel, warm and sincere wishes for the continued progress and prosperity of your country and its people.”
Indeed, the country’s first prime minister, Errol Barrow, could trace back Jewish ancestry as a descendant of the island’s notable Baruch family. In 1972, on an official visit to Israel, Barrow was asked about his Jewish roots by then-prime minister Golda Meir. As legend has it, Barrow told his Israeli counterpart that he had Jewish lineage and exclaimed, “Where do you think I get my brains from?” Golda Meir, it was reported, burst out in laughter.
Barbados was one of only three Caribbean states not to vote in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state at the UN
Barbados has been known to support Israel when it counts. In 1975, for example, the country voted against the infamous “Zionism is Racism” United Nations resolution. As a proud descendant of Jews, then-prime minister Barrow said that on his watch he could not allow his UN representative to vote for a resolution that in effect illegitimated the Jewish people’s right of self-determination.
More recently, in 2012, Barbados was one of only three Caribbean states not to vote in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state at the UN, but abstained instead. Barbadian historian Morris Greenidge is convinced that current Prime Minister Freundel Stuart ordered his UN envoy to abstain as he did not want to vote against Israel on such an important issue.
Amiram Magid, Israel’s ambassador to Barbados at the time of the vote, concurred. “Unlike many other Caribbean countries, Barbados often stands separately on foreign policy issues and makes decisions on solid legal grounds. When it comes to a crucial vote [on Israel] in the UN, they will abstain.”
Magid added that Stuart is an avid historian who told him that he has read biographies of all of Israel’s prime ministers and presidents. The retired ambassador also said that despite the distance, there has been good cooperation between the two countries in recent years in the fields of agriculture, coastal security and solar power energy. In the past year alone, he said the Israeli Foreign Ministry has also offered several entrepreneurship training courses on site in Barbados as well as in Israel for Barbadian students.
The Barbados Jewish community has a long history of resilience starting with Jews who came to Barbados from Recife, Brazil after being expelled when the Portuguese captured the territory from the more tolerant Dutch in the 1600s. Founded in the 17th century, Barbados’s Kahal Kadosh Nidhe Israel community survived all the way until 1929 when Joshua Baeza, the last Jew, sold the synagogue to end 300 years of Sephardic Jewish presence there.
But, like a sphinx rising from its ashes, the community had a rebirth only two years later in 1931, when Moshe Altman, a peddler from Lublin, Poland decided to make Barbados his home after his ship docked there on a business trip to Venezuela.
As his grandson, Paul Altman, told The Times of Israel, “Poland was not a place where he wanted to stay. His life was tremendously restricted living in a shtetl [small Jewish market town in Eastern Europe prior to World War II] and he found out that Barbados had a Jewish history and that he could get a British passport if he came here.”
Moshe Altman brought over his immediate family and encouraged other Polish Jews from Lublin to immigrate too. By 1941, 40 Jewish families from Poland had settled in Barbados. Ultimately, Altman’s call for Jews to come to the welcoming island led to 100-120 Jews being saved from the Holocaust.
The community has never been large and today numbers between 80-100 individuals; there is no permanent rabbi. The historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue – which dates back to 1654 and is considered one of the oldest in the western hemisphere – is closed most of the year for services, but is busy during the winter season to accommodate the large influx of Jewish American, Canadian and British tourists coming to the island for vacation. Otherwise, locals attend the Shaare Tzedek Synagogue throughout the year.
‘The community will be around in 50 years, but will reflect Barbados’s racial demography’
With dwindling numbers there is a big question mark as to whether the community can survive, especially due to assimilation and the younger generation migrating in search of better job prospects.
Synagogue member Vilma Sukhdeo, however, is more optimistic: “For some reason, the community never dies.”
A number of black Bajans have converted to Judaism through the Conservative movement in the US and are active members. Earlier this year, history was made when Orial Springer became the first person of color to become Shaare Tzedek’s secretary.
“The community will be around in 50 years,” Springer said, “but the people will look different and will reflect Barbados’s racial demography.”
Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth from 1653 to 1658, officially allowed Jews to settle in Barbados in 1655. He believed that this would be a “shrewd business move” as the Jews had expertise in trade and commerce and they would help get the island’s economy going. He was not wrong.
The modern windmill, crucial for sugar cane production, was introduced by a Sephardic Jew and within 20 years the ‘sugar revolution’ transformed Barbados forever
The early Jews from Recife, who were experts in sugar cultivation – a crop perfectly suited to the climate and soil of Barbados – did, in fact, help rejuvenate the British colony’s economy. The modern windmill, crucial for sugar cane production, for example, was introduced by a Sephardic Jew, David De Mercardo, and within 20 years the “sugar revolution” transformed Barbados forever. Sugar, in addition to tourism, is still an important part of the economy today.
But not everyone benefited from the economic windfall. For most natives – 80% who are descendants of African slaves – the history of the sugar cane industry strikes a raw emotional nerve as it was built on the backs of slaves working the sugar plantations. It is estimated that between 1627 and 1807, 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will.
According to records, there were Jews who owned slaves, but only two throughout the history of slavery in Barbados owned a plantation: Jacob Da Costa and Abraham Rodrigues Brandon at the beginning of the 19th century.
Relationships with enslaved black or free colored women were also not uncommon and, as a result, descendants of such liaisons can be easily identified in Barbados today as there are Sephardic surnames still in common use on the island, such as Aboah, Valverde, De Mercardo, Lindo and Depeiza.
Tel Aviv native and president of the Barbados Jewish community Jacob Hassid described his first visit to Barbados as “love at first sight” due to the warmth of the people, the beautiful scenery and the tranquility of the island. Jews who visit Barbados, he said, will receive a warm welcome from the Jewish community and from the wider Bajan society.
As the old Bajan saying goes, Barbados is “21 miles long and a smile wide.”
— Mark Schulman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.