A group of congregants, converts and non, at the nearby shore. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A group of congregants, converts and non, at the nearby shore. (photo credit: Courtesy)

KINGSTON, Jamaica – The first ordained rabbi in 40 years to serve the Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Kingston, Jamaica, has attracted to his conversion classes candidates who include descendants of its once much larger and thriving population.

The tropical island’s active and affiliated two hundred or so members of The United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica (UCIJA) are a remnant of a community whose Sephardic roots go back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus (who was possibly a converso Jew). There are columns of Levys and Cohens listed in the Kingston phone book and the UCIJA’s website says, “Today many of the island’s leading professionals, businessmen and leaders generally can trace Jewish ancestry in their genealogy.”

Kaplan is no stranger to the conversion process, as his doctoral thesis was on conversion to Judaism in early America

Formerly with a congregation in Georgia, Rabbi Dana Evans Kaplan now leads worshipers at the Dutch and Sephardic synagogue, a whitewashed structure with sand floors in Old Kingston. A graduate of Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College with a PhD in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University, he took his new pulpit last September. Kaplan is no stranger to either the conversion process or to the Caribbean, as his doctoral thesis was on conversion to Judaism in early America, and he has written about Cuban Jewry.

Before his arrival, services and classes had been led by congregants, including Stephen Henriques, a descendant of an old Jamaican Jewish family. There were also conversion ceremonies. “While Stephen had no formal training, he was very enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. I don’t know what percentage of the people he taught are still attending our synagogue, or still practicing Judaism somewhere else, but I would imagine it would be quite high,” said Kaplan, who added that some converts also led services.

Kaplan and the synagogue are now formalizing the process of conversion, which it calls simply “Giur,” Hebrew for “conversion.” The synagogue’s beit din, or rabbinical court, interviewed 15 people and admitted 14, including three who will likely have a formal conversion later this year. One applicant chose to opt out for personal reasons.

“Obviously we only brought people to the beit din who had been coming to synagogue for quite a while. We had a reasonable expectation that they were ready. Some had been coming for as long as 11 years,” said Kaplan. The rabbi expects future candidates from among others currently attending services.

Kaplan adds that some of those undergoing conversion “have a Jewish background, but fairly far back. We accept patrilineal descent, so someone with a Jewish father and Christian mother would not have to convert as long as they were raised Jewish.

“The people in the program have been coming for quite some time. New people appear as well but they don’t enter the program until after quite some time. There is a great deal of economic and racial diversity.”

The roots of the UCIJA’s Shaare Shalom can be traced back to synagogues in nearby Port Royal that were devastated by an earthquake in 1692, and later in the inland British capital of Spanish Town. Many of the Jews who perished are buried across the harbor from Port Royal at Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, which has been restored and surveyed. Shaare Shalom was rededicated in 1912 after being rebuilt on its present site following earthquake damage of 1907.

The UCIJA was formed in 1921 and the property surrounding the synagogue today includes a Jewish Heritage Center and a memorial garden whose tombstones date back to the 18th century. On Monday nights the synagogue’s Jewish Home, now called Miriam House, hosts an Adult Information Program which has been focusing on prayers and holidays.

One conversion student is Carol Lawton whose family has been in Jamaica over 150 years. He readily admits he’s “not the best student” in the Giur program. He describes himself as “very secular in outlook” and says that most of his family assimilated over the last 40 years and intermarried. “But the Jewish traditions hold water,” he said.

‘My family were Ashkenazim at the time. Now we share traditions. We Jamaicanized the different streams’

“My family were Ashkenazim at the time. Now we share traditions. We Jamaicanized the different streams,” he said.

Lawton says the classes allow him “to reconnect deep with my Jewish heritage which will better enable me to pass on our traditions to the next generation to come.” He especially notes that he’s improving his knowledge of Hebrew.

“It’s not just the class, but I think with a rabbi in the community, we’ll see a coming together as it was very fragmented the last 30-plus years.”

Gloria Hartwick (not her real name) was born into a family with Jamaican roots going back to the 1600s. Her Jewish grandfather married a Roman Catholic and her father was raised as a Catholic. Her mother’s great-grandmother was Jewish and married a Catholic and the subsequent generations, including her own, were Catholic as well. She also attended a Catholic high school.

“Up until 2009, I was a practicing Catholic. After the death of my father, I walked away from the church. In my mind, the values and ethics were not in sync with my current ideology. It literally felt like I was swimming against the current, i.e., upstream,” Hartwick explained.

While studying for her doctoral degree in education, she looked beyond her “comfort zone to question every fabric of her being,” she said. “I believe that there are no coincidences in life but rather every engagement has its purpose,” said Hartwick, who explained how she became friends with her new neighbor, an Israeli engineer. He invited her and her husband to a party at the home of another Israeli who was also working in Jamaica. “It was there I received my first exposure to Judaism — Succot.”

‘Whenever I enter the doors of the synagogue and listened and repeated the prayers and or sang the prayers, there was a feeling of calm and peace that took over my essence’

She was invited to worship at the synagogue on a Friday night. Hartwick recalled how she was a little intimidated at first, attempting to navigate the prayers and proceedings of the service. “Over the ensuing days, I purchased a prayer book and started reviewing the Psalms and daily prayers — all of this was relatively new, since I grew up on the New Testament. Nonetheless, there was a level of curiosity given my family history, so I returned to the synagogue repeatedly, and I asked myself, ‘Why?’ Whenever I enter the doors of the synagogue and listened and repeated the prayers and or sang the prayers, there was a feeling of calm and peace that took over my essence; it is like there is a sense of oneness with the Divine. It is very difficult to explain.”

She began to study. She points to the rabbi’s adult educational talks as well as one-on-one discussions with him and other members of the congregation as leading to her decision.

The Kingston synagogue has a mix of influences, creating a unique Jamaican Judaism. (photo credit: courtesy)

The Kingston synagogue has a mix of influences, creating a unique Jamaican Judaism. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“The embracing of Judaism by such a significant number of new people has dramatic implications for our congregation,” said Kaplan. “Like all synagogues, we want to preserve a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as well as a Jewish religious one. In our case, we are also determined to maintain and enhance our Spanish Portuguese heritage, which includes distinctive terminology such as the Ladino term ‘levanter’ for the lifting of the Torah — which is done before the Torah reading rather than after — distinctive melodies, and a unique history of conversos escaping from Spain and Portugal, returning to Judaism in Amsterdam and then coming to the Caribbean.”

Hartwick reflected that “Judaism in Jamaica has a rich history and despite numerous obstacles, the Jewish people still remain committed and vibrant. I am honored to be a part of this legacy.”

Kaplan added, “If the congregation can work together to develop a coherent mission — to practice progressive Judaism in a warm and vibrant atmosphere — then we can build a nice-sized congregation that should prosper and grow.”