On this day: Barbados gains independence

November 30 1966: Jewish life on an island-nation

By Jennifer Lipman, November 30, 2010

Settled by the British in 1625, Barbados remained a colony for more than three centuries.

A prized holiday destination for both Jewish and non-Jewish tourists, the Caribbean island also has a Jewish past.

Sephardic Jews first came to Barbados in the 1650s, refugees from Brazil escaping the Inquisition. Most began working in Bridgetown as merchants, trading sugercane and coffee. The challenges for the community were different to those for European Jews; one Succot, the succah and the synagogue were destroyed by a hurricane.

The population had faded by the Second World War as a result of assimilation and emigration, but after the war the community revived with the arrival of refugees from Europe. Some 30 families make up the community today.

There is still a synagogue on the island – in fact it is thought to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Originally built in 1654, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown was renovated and reconsecrated in 1983. A museum dedicated to the history of Barbadian Jews opened two years ago.

While the community is small, there are plenty of traces of Jewish life on the island. Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green is just one of the Jewish holidaymakers known to enjoy the clear turquoise seas, warm temperatures and palm trees of resorts such as the famous Sandy Lane.

What one JC reader wrote in a letter to us: Wandering around the cemetery, we learned there has been a Jewish presence in Barbados for over 300 years. One puzzling thing: engraved on headstones from the 1700s, along with Hebrew and English inscriptions, was the skull-and-crossbones. Could these have been the headstones of former pirates? Do readers know if there were indeed Jewish pirates, even before estate agents and accountants?

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Last updated: 9:42am, November 30 2010