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Return to the Caribbean: cruising through Jewish history

As cruise ships start to return to islands hit by Hurricane Irma, there's Jewish heritage to discover that’s as fascinating as the beaches

When you think of the Caribbean, it conjures up images of walking through soft sand on crystal-clear beaches. But you don’t expect to feel the sand beneath your feet in shul.

Welcome to St Thomas, capital of the US Virgin Islands, home to the second oldest synagogue on American soil — and our stop for the day on a Caribbean cruise.

Beyond the obvious attractions of sunshine, sea and palm trees, there is much in these parts for those interested in Jewish culture. St Thomas’s synagogue is squeezed into a narrow street in the capital, Charlotte Amalie, to serve a congregation founded in 1796 by Sephardi Jews, many of whom arrived on island shores after fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition.

The original synagogue burned down when fire engulfed the city in 1831 and the current building was constructed two years later. St Thomas was — unexpectedly — under Danish rule until it was handed over to America in 1917.

Our guide for the day turns out to be a friendly ex-New Yorker, who tells us the synagogue still holds regular Shabbat services for the 65 families of the local community. The building is colonial through and through, with shafts of sunlight falling through the arches on to the sandy floor.

Although its sounds like a gimmick, the sand’s origin is practical and strategic. The Marrano Jews in the first congregation, who were used to worshipping secretly back in Spain, spread sand on the floor to muffle the sound of their prayers and shuffling feet.

These days there is no need for such secrecy. People come from far and wide to enjoy the synagogue’s charms. According to our guide, it is not unknown for families to come in from their cruise ship for the day and hold a (pre-arranged) bar/batmitzvah for one of their children.

Charlotte Amalie was also the birthplace of Camille Pissarro, the Jewish French Impressionist painter, who learned his craft on the island before going off to Paris and artistic fame. Born in 1830, Pissarro left half his estate to the synagogue and half to St Thomas’s Protestant church (his mother was a Creole) on his death in 1903.

Although the synagogue is a wonderful place, it is nevertheless a side attraction to St Thomas’s beaches, legendary for their dazzling water, white sand and sea life. Magens Beach is the best known, while Abi’s Beach has its own great reputation.However, our taxi driver suggested Coki Beach and it did not disappoint.

This part of the US Virgin Islands was only the start of our own voyage of discovery. In 2011, the Jewish community on the nearby island of St Maarten opened its first synagogue since the 18th century. Part of a Chabad centre on the Dutch side of the island, it serves 300 Jewish residents, a figure that climbs to 1,000 or so during the tourist season.

As on St Thomas, Jews first came to the island as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and the community grew during the 16th and 17th centuries. The lone synagogue was abandoned in 1781 and later destroyed by a hurricane.

St Maarten has the distinction of being shared — one half is French, the other Dutch — renowned for a beach where international flights roar just metres overhead, and as a playground for the wealthy. To demonstrate the scale, our Dutch driver reveals that there are 280 private jets at the island’s airport.

But his most interesting titbits relate to the standoff between the Dutch and the French. If you make a phone call from one side of the island to the other, it counts as international. Mobile phones are scrambled if you try to call direct.

The French side of the island still allows cockfights — but try it on the Dutch side and you will go to prison. The two sides celebrate Mother’s Day on different dates. The list goes on. Old rivalries never change.

These days the largest Jewish population in the Caribbean can be found on Puerto Rico. This island, a US territory since it was ceded by Spain in 1898, has more than 3,000 Jewish inhabitants, who come from three major Jewish traditions — Orthodox, Conservative (Masorti) and Reform (UK Liberal).

The community was also founded by Marrano Jews, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage. However, the first significant group of Jews to settle in Puerto Rico were European refugees, escaping from German-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

The second influx of Jews to the island came in the 1950s, when thousands of Cuban Jews (most of Eastern-European descent) fled after Fidel Castro came to power. Although the majority emigrated to Miami in Florida, a substantial portion chose instead to move to neighbouring Puerto Rico because of the cultural, linguistic and historic similarities.

Today, Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan is enjoying a boom as tourists flock to its old city, a pocket gem that combines its colourful Catholic and native history with a liberal dash of rum and salsa. For anyone thinking of cruising this part of the world, look for an itinerary that starts here.

It also pays to time your visit to these islands with a local carnival; our visit took us to St Kitts in the middle of its celebration.

Every street of the capital, Basseterre, was packed with people shimmying along in outrageous costumes or parading atop double decker buses, with music blaring so loudly you could feel it pound in your chest. Who needs New Orleans or Rio when you can get up close and personal with these festivities?

Even better, rather than the usual sunset departure, our ship stayed in port until late, which allowed plenty of time to enjoy the street food, dancing and locally-produced alcohol.

My wife and I have vowed to return — for the dancing, the rum and maybe even a Friday-night service.

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