By Buzzy Gordon
News of archaeological finds shedding light on Jewish history invariably comes from Israel. It was especially surprising, therefore, when a significant Jewish historical discovery was made in, of all places, Barbados – a small speck of an island on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.
Michael Stoner, an American doctoral student in archaeology, was excavating on the grounds of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados’ capital, a city recently added to the distinguished list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. As he surveyed what he believed to be a rabbi's house buried under the parking lot, two Israeli tourists appeared on the scene. “One of them said, ‘mikvah,'" Stoner recalls.
The non-Jewish archaeologist did not know what a mikvah was, but the Israeli was right: unexpectedly, Stoner had dug up a ritual bath that (like the neighboring house of worship) is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere – dating back to 1654, the year Sephardic Jews fled the Inquisition in the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
The 354-year-old mikvah is beautifully preserved: a two-flight staircase leads down to the rectangular bath, which was fed by a live spring that still exists. Arched alcoves for lamps line the stairwell and surround the bath.
With the addition of the impressive mikvah, the Nidhe Israel compound – comprising the meticulously restored synagogue, cemetery with ornate gravestones and brand-new museum – must now be considered the most comprehensive Jewish heritage destination in the Caribbean. Its closest rival would be Curacao’s Mikveh Israel Synagogue, which lays claim to being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
The original 17th-century Nidhe Israel Synagogue (the name means Scattered of Israel) was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and was rebuilt, only to fall into disrepair as the community dwindled. It was sold for commercial purposes in 1929. In the 1930s, a new influx of Jews – Ashkenazim this time, fleeing Nazism – came to the island and established Congregation Shaare Tzedek on a different site.
Nevertheless, the modern-day community sprang into action in 1983, when the ancient synagogue building was slated for destruction. Prominent local businessman Paul Altman petitioned the government to spare the building so that it could be restored to its former glory; Prime Minister Tom Adams agreed, provided the Jewish community would fund the reconstruction.
Altman spearheaded a worldwide fundraising drive, and with the help of the philanthropic Tabor family, the synagogue was painstakingly restored, inside and out. The exterior, replete with Gothic arches, is a shade of coral pink that is reminiscent of Jerusalem stone when the light is just right. The interior features an imposing ark and bima(pulpit, situated toward the rear of the sanctuary) of gleaming dark wood, as well as reproductions of antique chandeliers. Sabbath eve services are held in the historic building throughout the winter months (tourist season); a second, air-conditioned synagogue is used by the small community of 16 families during the summer.
Another source of justifiable pride for the community is the state-of-the-art interactive museum, dedicated in 2009. The museum’s exhibits, artifacts, videos and timeline tell the story of the island’s influential Jewish inhabitants, whose contribution to the country’s development and prosperity cannot be overstated. The Jews arriving from northern Brazil brought with them the technology for processing sugar that was to be the engine of the Barbadian economy for the subsequent three centuries.
Moreover, a significant chapter of Jewish settlement in the United States has its origins here: in 1658, Mordecai Campanal and Moses Pacheco arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, from Barbados, then encouraged 15 more Jewish families from the Dutch and British West Indies to join them. While their brethren in New Amsterdam/New York were still being denied permission to build a synagogue, the Jews of Newport established Congregation Jeshuat Israel, now better known as the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the colonial U.S.
Meanwhile, the Jewish merchants and bankers of Barbados were instrumental in transforming Bridgetown into one of the most important ports of the British Empire in the 18thcentury. And in the mid-1700’s, a young Virginian named George Washington came to Barbados, on the only trip abroad he was ever to make (the home where he lodged is one of the island’s tourist attractions).
Washington’s visit to the sophisticated metropolis of commerce was a life-changing event for the lad: he mingled with high society and returned home with a recommendation that would lead to his first military appointment. It is likely that the young American would have heard complimentary things about the island’s wealthy Jewish citizenry; a map of the city from the period clearly identifies the grounds of the handsome two-storey synagogue with no less prominence than the leading church. Did Washington perhaps form a favorable impression of Jewish enterprise, based on the success he observed in Barbados?
Fast forward to 1790: President George Washington, in his celebrated letter "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport," pledged that the new nation, committed to freedom of religion, would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
Did history come full circle when Washington, who had gained so much from his exposure to Barbadian society, later sent his historic missive to the American congregation whose roots can be traced to Barbados?
Award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon is the author of Frommer's Jerusalem Day by DayGuide. He has been reporting on remote Jewish communities around the world for nearly four decades.