The scope of our Jewish heritage tours often go beyond that of the borders of the world rivers. Like a drop of rain that stirs the surface of a deep and silent well, our journey resonates with the rich, complex Jewish heritage that can be found around the world. Take our Douro cruise, for example. Our river tour through the Iberian Peninsula explores the legacy of the Sephardic Jews who lived in Portugal and Spain, and how they persisted in spite of persecution. While many Jews stayed in Iberia, either changing their faith or continuing their Jewish practices in secret, many more fled, to Europe or elsewhere. A few of these Jews decided to settle in Jamaica, a place so far from Europe, yet still bearing a rich piece of Jewish history.
From Iberia to the Caribbean
The catalyst for the establishment of a Jewish population in Jamaica was the Alhambra Decree, which expelled the Jews from Spain and had a hand in their later expulsion from Portugal. While Jamaica was (at that time, at least) a Spanish colony, several Jews did flee to this far island, so as to be free from the depredations in Europe. When the British took over Jamaica in 1655, the conversos living there could now practice Judaism with greater freedom, though their rights were still limited for a time. Jamaica was also home to Port Royal, a well-known haven of pirates, some of whom were Jewish (there was even an area in that town called Jew Street, suggesting a significant Jewish presence). Indeed, some Jews turned to privateering or piracy, targeting Spanish ships as revenge for their banishment.
Over time, a number of Ashkenazic Jews also began to emigrate to Jamaica, and as the centuries followed, the Jews of the island were granted more and more rights and economic power (such as in the sugar industry), to the point that the communities therein established up to eight synagogues.
Much has happened in Jamaica over the centuries, from earthquakes to slavery revolts, to religious movements. Today, most of the Jewish population in Jamaica live in Kingston, and number approximately 200 individuals or so. The Shaare Shalom Synagogue is one of two synagogues in Jamaica and maintains itself well. The various cemeteries on the island exhibit Jewish names, and the 200 or so Jews of the island continue the traditions of their ancestors. Our kosher cruises may not reach Jamaica, but the distant heritage of Sephardic Jews is strong regardless.