La Nacion: Jews of the Caribbean

A forgotten and remarkable history of a people who banded together as one and created an exhilarating tale of the hero’s journey is that of the Jews of the Caribbean. It is a harrowing story that breathes hope into the very souls of people who seek liberty and justice for all. A gripping narrative of mayhem that takes us from the Spanish Inquisition; to the sun filled Caribbean islands, and then onwards to the United States of America where the journey almost proves too much for these freedom fighters. Their perilous journey and their cries for religious freedoms do not, however, fall on deaf ears, and land in the hands of George Washington.

La Nación (Persons of the Nation) is a term that was used to describe Jamaican Jews and Jews of the Caribbean. These Jews were of Spanish and Portuguese descent and were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. These Sephardic Jews sought refuge in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, where they were able to escape from a reign of terror and death (1494-1655). Once on the beautiful island of Jamaica they were able to practice their religion freely. Jamaican Jews attained rights not available to most Jews worldwide for many years to come.

The Windsor Declaration of 1661 granted Jamaican Jewish residents “full citizens of Britain”. Jamaican Jews attained full political rights in 1831, the first British subjects of their faith to do so, 27 years before the same rights were granted in England. In the mid 19th century, the House of Assembly became probably the world’s first legislative body to adjourn for the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. This occurred in 1849, when 8 of the Assembly’s 47 members, including the Speaker, were Jewish.

La Nación was once so influential that it helped fuel the success of the American Revolution and finance the first synagogues in the United States, located in New York City and Rhode Island. Larger communities looked after the smaller ones throughout Europe, the Caribbean and North and South America. They saw themselves as an extended community.

Touro Synagogue, centered in Newport, Rhode Island, is North America’s First Synagogue. Completed for Chanukah in 1763 by Congregation Jeshuat Israel, this extraordinary synagogue was commissioned by Sephardic Jews who fled religious persecution and were granted religious freedom in the United States. Peter Harrison was the pre-eminent architect of the time, hired by the congregation, and Isaac Touro was the spiritual leader who gave a verbal description of Sephardic Synagogues from Amsterdam. The 12 pillars inside the synagogue represent each of the tribes of Israel.

In 1790, George Washington sanctioned religious freedom in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation. “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

During the time of the American Revolution in 1776, the British captured Newport and most of the 30 Jewish families left for fear of their lives. The synagogue survived the destruction of the British, not because it was a house of worship, but because those members of the Jewish community brave enough to stay behind convinced the British to use it as a hospital. It was later used as a courthouse and in the 1830s-1850s as a stop (station) of the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves to escape to Canada.

“Between 1840 and 1860, before the American Civil War, enslaved Africans followed the North Star on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada. It was not an actual railroad but a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape slavery and reach free states or Canada. Sometimes there were guides available to help people find their way to the next stop along the way. Travelling on the Underground Railroad was dangerous and required luck as much as a guide.”

The keys to Touro Synagogue have always remained in the hands of a member of the original Jewish community.

Isaac Touro moved his family to Kingston, Jamaica, a British colony in 1783. He took on the post as Cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom. He died within a year of his move to Jamaica. These are only a few interesting facts of Jamaican Jews and Jews of the Caribbean.

We are celebrating our Jamaican Jewish heritage and history by educating the world through an international art exhibition featuring the work of the acclaimed photographer Wyatt Gallery. Our objective is to educate the world of this spectacular Jamaican Jewish Heritage, La Nación — Jews of the Caribbean and of our contribution to the Jewish communities wide-reaching.

One of our mandates is to create an inclusive atmosphere through art to help illuminate the full glory of our phenomenal Jamaican Jewish Heritage, that of La Nación-Jews of the Caribbean and keep alive this astounding 520 year old history on the brink of extinction with your help. Wyatt Gallery and Tanya Lee will be travelling with this exhibition to host workshops and talks to engage all-inclusive communities.

The semi-formal opening night gala will be held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on April 15, 2014. Dignitaries from around the world will be in attendance. Part of the night festivities will be that of a Passover Seder lead by Rabbi Wayne Allen. We will celebrate and commemorate religious freedoms and our continual struggle for equality and freedom for all.

An all inclusive traveling exhibit at respective Jamaican consulates and embassies around the world, Jewish institutions and art galleries is presently being scheduled from April 2014 onwards. Fine Art Photographs taken by the acclaimed American photographer Wyatt Gallery will be on display.

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