December 11, 2023
December 11, 2023

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Rediscover Jamaica, a Treasure Trove of Jewish Heritage and History

As Jewish travel becomes more mainstream amongst the Jewish diaspora, travelers are looking for more unique destinations to have a Jewish travel experience. While Eastern Europe and Israel remain the top destinations for Jewish travel, the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, has a vastly untapped Jewish tourism experience, which is sourced from a far-reaching history and modern initiatives that make Jamaica ideal for any traveler seeking to see Jewish history come alive while enjoying top-scale amenities and scenic beaches in a modernized Caribbean destination dedicated to providing a strong tourism offering.

Jamaica’s capital Kingston is home to the Shaare Shalom Synagogue, the only temple on the island, and one of four “sand floor synagogues” remaining in the world. Built in the 17th century by descendants of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, today the synagogue is adjacent to a museum of Jamaican Jewish history. The synagogue can host up to 600 people and typically services are a mix of tourists and the 300 or so Jewish Jamaicans. The synagogue floor is still covered with sand, the mechanism used by Sephardic Jews to muffle the sound of prayers during the Inquisition. With a grand collection of historical Judaica, the synagogue is considered one of the finest historical collections in the Caribbean.

Jamaica has a forgotten legacy of Jewish pirates. Many of the Jews who settled in Jamaica after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition turned to piracy, raiding the Spanish fleet as a way of revenge for the injustice served to them. The most famous Jewish Jamaican pirate, Moses Cohen Henriques, lead the only successful capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628.

Devon House, one of Jamaica’s premiere heritage sites, has a surprising Jewish history to it. Built in 1881, the colonial mansion was commissioned for George Stiebel, who was not only Jamaica’s first black millionaire but also the son of a German Jew. Devon House has tours of the luxurious property and is home to various culinary treats, such as an ice cream parlor and a bakery.

Jews who have had a long history in Jamaica can find representation in The National Gallery, Jamaica’s public art museum in the Kingston mall. Much of the artwork has been produced or inspired by Jews in Jamaica, who have faced centuries of struggle against adversity before finding a new life in the New World.

Visitors to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston can find a striking resemblance between Rastafarianism and Judaism, particularly Kabbalah spiritualism. A lot of the art and décor resembles traditional Jewish designs found in Tzfat.

Chabad Jamaica, led by Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, coordinates kosher food distribution to resorts all over the island, so Jewish travelers will not have to worry about availability of kosher food no matter where in Jamaica they are staying. Rabbi Raskin also leads several programs for tourists seeking a communal Jewish experience, the most popular of which are weekly Shabbat services and dinners overlooking the sunset on the beach.

The Kosher Hot Spot restaurant, run by Chabad in Montego Bay, doubles as a welcome center where visitors can learn about Chabad’s growth in Jamaica, try a delicious jerk falafel and get connected for on-island Shabbat and holiday services.

The remains of the Gibraltar Refugee Camp, which was built by the British in the 1940s to provide a safe-haven for Jews fleeing fascist Spain, provides visitors with a rare opportunity for exposure to Holocaust history in North America. A reunion of the camp’s survivors was hosted in 2017, giving new life to the site of the camp, now on the campus of the University of the West Indies. Artifacts from the camp are on display in the university’s museum.

The popular cruise port town of Falmouth is known for its walking tours, many of which include the Jewish cemetery as a stop on the tour. Established in the early 19th century, the stop on the tour is a welcome reminder of the long history of Jews in the Caribbean.

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