I’d rather be in Barbados
The Nidhe Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and a distinguished part of the Barbados National Trust. (Photo by Cynthia Calvert)
If you want a holiday, come to the Caribbean. If you want to upgrade, come to Barbados. Chay David, director of corporate communications for the Barbados Tourism Authority, told me that over a lobster dinner on the beach in Bridgetown, Barbados last, December.
Seeking a holiday, and definitely enjoying the upgrade, I spent a three-day weekend on this lovely spot in the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, a tiny dot on most world maps with an area of just more than 165 square miles, 60 of which are coastline.
I spent a morning with Paul Altman and Michael Stoner, who showed me the island’s only synagogue, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and a distinguished part of the Barbados National Trust.
Jews from Reclife, Brazil, settled in Bridgetown after persecution by the Portuguese; they built the synagogue, called the Kahal Kadosh Nidhe Israel, in 1654. They became merchants and brought expertise in sugar, settling mainly in the area called Speightstown. In 1831 a hurricane destroyed the synagogue, which was rebuilt but eventually it fell into disrepair as the Jewish population left the island or assimilated with native families. Over the next 100 years, the Jewish population dwindled until the synagogue was sold in 1929. It was sold to a private group of lawyers who used it as a law library and ultimately it passed on to others who used it as a horse racing; gambling hall and a warehouse. The Jewish cemetery outside became a dumping ground.
By 1983, the decayed property had been seized by the government, which intended to use the site for a new courthouse. The local Jewish community, led by Altman, petitioned the government and eventually got the property back. Altman a prosperous Barbadian Realtor, traveled to Jerusalem, seeking restoration funds. Sixty years of additions, alterations and remodeling were undone and extensive restoration took place; the total cost exceeded $1 million. Today the beige stone building appears much as it did in the 1830s – when the Sephardic Jewish population was prosperous and expansive. Latticework, sconces and a striking stained glass window were recreated and in 1987, the synagogue re-opened. Services are held December through April; it is open to the public Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m.
Altman, who spearheaded the restoration, proudly led us into the beautifully restored synagogue. The windows were open and a few seagulls drifted in and out as he spoke.
“Today there are 16 Jewish families on the island,” Altman said. “But when I was young, my grandfather, Moses Altman, came here from Poland. There were dozens of Jewish families living here.”
Altman said his grandfather was aboard a ship, holding a British passport, when it stopped briefly at Barbados. “He decided to stay, looking at it as a place to start over.”
Stoner, an archaeologist and doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, has spent several years at the site. One day, he was leading the research excavation in the parking lot when he made a startling discovery.
“I was working here when I heard two tourists say ‘mikveh’ and suddenly, it dawned on me what we really had here.” A mikveh is a ritual Jewish bath, primarily constructed for Jewish women to purify themselves after their menstrual periods, although Stoner said it was a tradition for the men to use it on Fridays before Sabbath services. Three weeks of hard work resulted in the eventual discovery of a granite and marble staircase descending into the nearly 400-year-old bath. The mikveh was built over a fresh water spring that still runs.
As we stood at the site, peering down the stone steps, black gauze strung on tent poles shielded the work from the intense Caribbean sun while cars zipped past on the tiny congested streets surrounding the property. It’s clear that hundreds of years of history rested at our feet. Stoner has removed thousands of bits of relics and carefully cataloged them for further research. His workspace is the second floor of the Nidhe Israel Museum, just steps from the cemetery and mikveh.
The museum opened in 2008 and tells the history of Barbadian Jews. It is a cool, pensive building. Inside is modern technology and thorough research with interactive displays, housed in an old stone building on the site of what is believed to have been a school for Jewish children.