Friday, January 8, 2010

The Caribbean: Upcoming Conference "The Jewish Diaspora in the Caribbean"

Two view of the Old Jewish Cemetery at Sosua, Dominican Republic
(photos: Stuart Klipper (1990), ISJM files)

The Caribbean: Upcoming Conference "The Jewish Diaspora in the Caribbean" Points Out Need for More Documentation and Study, as Well as Preservation Planning, for Area Jewish Sites
by Samuel D. Gruber

Next week is the international conference The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean, to be held at Kingston’s Pegasus Hotel January 12-14 2010 to explore the history, culture, and identity of Caribbean Jewry. The conference is co-chaired by Jane S. Gerber (Professor of Jewish History, The Graduate Center, CUNY) and Ainsley Henriques (Director, the United Congregation of Israelites, Kingston). Please contact either the conference coordinator, Stan Mirvis, or Ainsley Henriques, for further information. The full schedule is posted at

ISJM is a co-sponsor of the conference, and ISJM Vice-President architect Rachel Frankel, will speak on “Remnant Stones: The Significance of New World Portuguese Jewish Diaspora Cemeteries.” Rachel is co-author with Aviva Ben-Ur of the recently published book Remnant Stones, a result of a multi-year documentation project in Suriname of which ISJM has been a sponsor.

There has been a Jewish presence in the Caribbean region for more than 500 years, since the first voyages of discovery by European explorers. Despite long oppression by the Spanish government and Catholic Church, there have been Jewish communities established in territories colonized by the Dutch and English since Dutch Jews settled in Brazil in the 1620s and following (until their expulsion by the Portuguese in 1654). Jewish colonization on Dutch and then English islands took place in the 1620s through the 1650s, and these communities have continued for the most part until today. Formal Jewish communities have existed in many independent former Spanish dominions since the 19th century.

Throughout the region, including settlement on islands and the South American littoral, there have been or are now scores of Jewish heritage sites, including communal and religious properties and urban areas of settlements and private plantations. Sites include cemeteries, synagogues, mikvot, schools, and commercial and domestic structures. The synagogue and adjacent mikveh on the island of Sint Eustatius has been excavated, and recent investigations have revealed a possible synagogue on the island of Nevis, and there may have been one on St. Martin was well.

Despite my initial hopes for the conference, however, there are too few presentations about historic sites or material culture. This unfortunately reflects a continuing dearth of good information about the architectural and urban contribution of Jews in the Caribbean region, and also about the location and condition of existing remains of synagogue and former Jewish Settlements, plantations, neighborhoods; former synagogues and mikva'ot; commercial enterprises; and cemeteries. Some major synagogue and cemeteries a - like those of Curacao - are studied and well known. But many others remain the subject or little more than the occasional tourist promotion description, and repetition of legendary history. For the most part, and compared to other parts of the world, Caribbean Jewish heritage has been overlooked by architectural and art historians.

Willemstad, Curacao. Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue. Photos: Samuel Gruber,(2007)

This is a great loss, since the Caribbean Jewish culture was dynamic and prosperous, and not - as is often implied - merely derivative of ideas and customs of Jewish centers in Amsterdam and London and few other places. The lack of documentation of specific places, too, puts many of these sites at continued risk - of encroaching development, vandalism, and deterioration due to natural and man made environmental problems (almost total deterioration of the marble gravestones at Curacao due to the acidic pollution of the nearby oil refinery is well documented).

Willemstad, Curacao. Beth Haim Jewish cemetery, with refinery in background)
Photo:Samuel D. Gruber (2007)

ISJM has prepared a proposal to organize a comprehensive survey of Jewish sites in the Caribbean. The project would combine volunteer community-building efforts with professional organization, oversight, description and analysis. Rachel and I would direct the survey. I have extensive experience with this kind of countrywide survey, and she has many years of experience visting and documenting Jewish sites in Suriname and Jamaica. We have compiled an impressive list of local experts - many of them already colleagues- to be engaged for specific part of the project.
Here is a summary of the project phases. ISJM will begin to seek funding support in the weeks following the conference.

PHASE I: Inventory, Survey, Documentation

In the first phase of the project ISJM will partner with local religious, historic and preservation organizations to compile a complete list of all sites in the region in the following categories:
  • Sites founded by Jews or for Jews specifically for Jewish religious and ritual activity, including synagogues, mikvot (ritual baths), and cemeteries;
  • Sites founded by Jews or for Jews for Jewish cultural or communal activity, including schools, community centers, hospitals, oldage homes, etc;
  • Sites of considerable significance to the Jewish history of the region, including areas of primary and predominant Jewish settlement, and selected specific residential and commercial founded, owned and used by Jews and particularly noted for some significant activity of Jews.

All sites will be identified as to location (by map and GPS), current ownership and use, and general condition. Using available historic research the historical, architectural or other significance of each site will be briefly described. Whenever possible, new documentary photography will be carried out on site.

PHASE II: Planning

In the second phase of the project, all sites will be reviewed and evaluated a diverse committee of experts to evaluate the collective significance of sites and the significance of individual sites. From this process will develop a regional feasibility study for future development of region-based historic preservation, heritage tourism and Jewish and secular educational programs.

PHASE III: Conservation, Education, Presentation

The third phase is a long term effort to implement a range of protective and conservation measures, and to develop integrated education, commemorative and tourism programs and policies.

To support or participate in this survey please contact me directly. More information will be available later in 2010.


Hels said...

The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curacao is lovely, well designed inside to deal with a challenging climate and well designed outside to reflect the architecture of its historical origins, both Dutch and Dutch-inspired English.

I realise there are risk factors that endanger Curacao's important Jewish sites, but at least with architecture, there can be heritage or protective coverage. Do you know if this shule is protected?

Samuel Gruber said...

Yes, this synagogue is protected in many ways - by government, by the Jewish community, and as the recipient of considerable revenue from various sources. The same, however, cannot be said of many of the Jewish sites throughout the region - especially archaeological sites and cemeteries.

Hels said...

I created a link to your post on the Caribbean conference, even though it has well and truly past now. But hopefully people will get hold of the conference papers, if they are interested in the topic.


LondonGirl said...

I read Hels' article first, and followed the link to yours, a fascinating post!

And, shortly, Shabbat Shalom, too.