Many of the Jews found safety in North African nations, in Constantinople and in the Netherlands, but some sailed to Brasil to start over in the booming Portuguese colony. According to Ralph G Bennett, they set up trade routes between Portugal and its colony, and started farming on plantations. With the Inquisition still at full strength, they were forbidden to practice Judaism. The crypto-Jews used secret societies to teach their children about Judaism, thereby sustaining the Jewish faith in Brasil.
During the time the Jews were working on Brasilian plantations, they provided their most lasting benefit to the Caribbean economy. Sugar cane was imported from Madeira in Portugal, and it became the basic foundation of the entire Caribbean economy until the C18th.
Bridgetown Barbados synagogue
When the Dutch wanted to send settlers to colonise their new territory in Brasil, a group of 600 of the Amsterdam Jews sailed off to the new country. By 1642, the Holy Congregation as they called themselves, had some 3,500 members. They prospered in their traditional occupations as traders, merchants and farmers. With the Dutch in power, Jews were no longer required to worship in secret communities, but instead were allowed to freely celebrate their religion. In time, the large numbers of Jews arriving from Brasil marked the beginning of definite Jewish communities in the Caribbean.
Kingston Jamaica synagogue
The very generous rights given to the Jews of the Caribbean area in the C17th allowed the religious leaders to assume special responsibilities, according to Mordechaï Arbell. The English in Surinam and the Dutch in Cayenne and Curacao permitted the Jews to administer their own lives, to have their own courts of law for litigation among themselves, to maintain their own schools, to build synagogues and to observe the Sabbath. Such rights were available to Jews at that time in very few places in the world.
St Thomas synagogue, interior
In 1656 in Curacao there were enough Jews to establish a congregation in Willemstad, the Sefardi Congregation named Mikveh Israel, which still operates. They built a synagogue in 1692. Samuel Gruber described the three great wooden barrel vaults that constitute the Curacao ceiling as being shaped like the inverted hulls of ships, ships that carried Jews to this safe haven.
Surinam's first synagogue was built out of wood in the 1660s at a site upriver from the capitol at Paramaribo. It was surrounded by a town which acted as headquarters for the Jewish plantation owners. A more permanent brick building was erected in 1685, and a rabbi arrived from London. In 1734, German-speaking Ashkenazi Jews began arriving and in time, they too wanted a synagogue of their own.
The first Jews settled in Martinique at the start of the C17th, establishing themselves in Dutch commercial outposts. In 1667 a synagogue was founded there.
With the foundation of the Mikveh Israel community in Curacao, newly arrived Amsterdam Jews joined. Then came Jews who arrived after the destruction of the Jewish communities of Cayenne & Pomeroon, and the unsuccessful attempt to have a Jewish settlement on the island of Tobago. A rabbi arrived in Curacao in 1674. In 1683 the same rabbi went to serve in Port Royal, Jamaica. Sadly a disastrous earthquake and tidal wave in 1692 destroyed the city of Port Royal, including its synagogue.
Cuba had the greatest difficulty. Spain's Inquisition covered Cuban society, and it was not officially abolished until 1823. Although Jews have been on Cuba for centuries, they were only lawfully allowed to settle in 1881. Only in 1898 were they finally allowed to publicly worship and built a synagogue for the congregation.
Curacao synagogue, interior
The Caribbean communities are tiny now. The St Thomas Synagogue, which was originally established in 1796 and was later rebuilt several times, now stands as a historic national landmark. In 1996, a small museum was added to the synagogue. The museum chronicles the history of the congregation, and displays artefacts of Jewish history on the island. And recently the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Centre opened next door to the 100-year-old Shaare Shalom synagogue in Kingston. The centre houses a permanent exhibition of Jamaican Jewish history, cases of Jamaican Judaica, archives, theatre and offices for the synagogue and community, most of whose members are in business.
Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments discussed an important conference, The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean, held in January 2010.