Once on This Island
Leading up to each presidential election, Americans on all sides grumble empty threats: If he wins, I’m moving to Canada. If she wins, I’m off to the Caribbean.
In 2016, Neal Rechtman lost his wife; later in the year, he watched Donald Trump win the presidency.
“On election night, I turned off the TV and did a Google search for Caribbean islands with a synagogue and a bridge club,” said Rechtman, a New York Jew and competitive bridge player. “Rabbi Google advised me to check out Barbados.”
Two months later, a fortnight before the inauguration, Rechtman arrived in Barbados and began his new life. Finding three bridge players was easy. Finding a 10-man minyan so he could say Kaddish for his late wife, less so.
The Barbadian (or Bajan) Jewish community is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and consists of about 50 full-time residents. But with hardly any members younger than 30 years old, the future doesn’t look so sunny. Rechtman described it as a “tragic, slow motion situation. We can see the end of the community.”
The community’s greatest worry is that too few Jews live on the island to replace the aging congregation. Intermarriage on Barbados has become the norm, and since the Conservative movement deems children of patrilineal descent to be non-Jewish, many of the resulting offspring who could have replaced the aging generation were never fully embraced as Jews.
A small and aging community isn’t unique to Barbados. “It’s like a small Jewish community anywhere,” said Rechtman. Before he grew too distressed, he recalled one thing that sets this Jewish community apart from all others, and something optimistic sparkled in his voice: “Except we have this 365-year-old synagogue.”
Nidhe Israel is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue. (Ignore Rabbi Google on that search, as it incorrectly retrieves results about Curacao’s oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. But the one in Curacao was erected 78 years after the Barbadian house of worship.) Nidhe Israel translates to Synagogue of the Scattered of Israel, apropos of the dispersed Jews who had settled Barbados.
After fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, Jews settled in Brazil. But centuries later, in 1628, shortly after Portugal reclaimed Brazil as a colony, the Jews there skedaddled. A number hightailed it to the newly established British settlement of Barbados.
For 300 years, Sephardic Jews prospered on the island. They held monopolies in the sugar trade. In the 1700s, the Jewish population peaked at 800—8% of the island’s population. And two years before civil and political freedoms were granted to Jews in the United Kingdom, they were given to Barbadian Jews.
Of course, even for a bunch of Jews in the Caribbean, life was no permanent vacation: Anti-Semitism rose in tandem with Jewish success in the sugar industry; a second synagogue on the island was mysteriously burned to the ground after a conflict with an uninvited gentile erupted at a Jewish wedding; and in 1831, a hurricane destroyed Nidhe Israel.
With the storm wrecking both the synagogue and business opportunities on the island, Jews dispersed, leaving few worshippers on Barbados. However, by 1833, those Sephardic Jews who had remained rebuilt Nidhe Israel, and for nearly a century, they conducted services in the capital city, Bridgetown, until the last Jew on the island died in 1929.
For two years, there wasn’t a single Bajan Jew. But in 1931, an Ashkenazi Jew—Moses Altman, who had seen the writing on the wall in Europe—fled to Barbados. Friends and family followed. The second Barbadian Jewish community had begun. Yet, these new arrivals didn’t have a synagogue, for the last Sephardic Jew had sold off Nidhe Israel, and the building had been converted into commercial offices and a law library.
So the new Jews worshipped in a private home until the 1960s, when the Jewish community purchased and operated a small unassuming synagogue, Sha’are Tzedek, a few miles south of Bridgetown in Rockley.
But then, in 1979, the government announced plans to raze the historic Nidhe Israel structure to build a new Supreme Court. It seemed that the centuries-old building was doomed—until one man stood up to save it.
On the sixth day of Passover this spring, my taxi turned right onto Synagogue Lane in Bridgetown. When I entered the grounds of Nidhe Israel, I found Paul Altman—the grandson of Moses Altman, that first Ashkenazi Jew to arrive on the island—standing in the shade of a giant tamarind tree, staring out at a collection of gravestones.
When the government planned to demolish the synagogue and cemetery 40 years ago, Altman recalled, “My father went ballistic. ‘You’re not going to touch any graves and you’re not going to touch the synagogue building.’ Those were [my father’s] exact words.”
Altman and his father, Henry, had formed “a singular opposition to government.” According to Altman, however, the reaction from the rest of the Jewish community was different: “You’re wasting your time. We will never use it. We will never need it.”
After all, they had the new synagogue in Rockley.
“I’m sort of an outsider to many of them,” Altman said, referring to his fellow Jews on the island.
While most of Barbados’ Jews are focused on religious practice and in growing or saving the community, Altman’s chief concern has always been the synagogue and its grounds.
In the 1980s, Altman became president of Barbados’ National Trust. In 1985, after witnessing the government’s destruction of Codd’s House, where the island’s emancipation bill had been signed, Altman took decisive action to prevent the demolition of Nidhe Israel, six years after plans to raze it had first been announced. Using his position and savvy, he made a handshake deal with the prime minister, who had said, according to Altman’s retelling, “If you can find the money, we’ll move the Supreme Court building.”
Altman secured the necessary donors; the prime minister kept his word.
But the synagogue had already spent half a century as a secular building, so what Altman received was Nidhe Israel’s zombie: Everything holy had been gutted, the upper-level windows had been plugged with cement, and a full second floor had been installed where the women’s balcony had been, dividing Nidhe Israel in half.
After discovering a trove of records and photographs, however, Altman was able to reconstruct the synagogue and the grounds. He transformed the old schoolhouse into a museum, fixed up the cemetery, and brought in a doctoral candidate of archaeological history, who uncovered a buried mikveh. The entire project took more than 30 years to complete. And when the grounds officially reopened in 2017, the synagogue became undead.
Inside Nidhe Israel this spring, I admired the dozen unpretentious chandeliers and the high ceiling, where the former women’s balcony—slim like a catwalk—horseshoed the room.
“You see those?” Altman said, pointing up to the Ten Commandments above the ark. When the government purchased a former governor’s home to serve as the prime minister’s official residence, Altman explained, the prime minister called him. The governor’s wife had apparently taken and hung the synagogue’s Ten Commandments over her swimming pool. The prime minister invited Altman to retrieve them.
Altman’s project to reconstruct Nidhe Israel is one of the reasons this area of Bridgetown was named a UNESCO World Heritage district in 2011. Similarly, it was likely a key reason why the British crown granted Paul Altman knighthood—and by his own calculations, why the community gave him black-sheep status.
“It was seen as I was wanting too much,” Altman said, quickly rejecting the notion. “This is not Paul’s synagogue … this belongs to the people. Not just Jewish people, but the people of this island.”
Altman is different from most Bajans, Jewish or otherwise. The tan and blue-eyed elder is svelte, often dressed formally in either suit jacket or tie. At Friday night services at the Rockley synagogue—where the island’s Jews congregate between Passover and Rosh Hashanah, dividing the year between the island’s two synagogues, flopping onto Sha’are Tzedek’s blue-and-white beach chairs instead of the beautiful benches inside Nidhe Israel—I noticed that the rest of the congregation dressed more like most other islanders: unbuttoned shirts and flip-flops.
While Altman is certainly different, he is no outcast. Altman, Rechtman, and the other 50 Barbadian Jews are all essentially castaways who have brought with them different religious interpretations and opinions about what matters most to the community’s future.
Jacob Hassid, an Israeli expatriate, who had served nine years as community president, said diversity in opinions was his greatest challenge. “We have people who are Orthodox when it comes to that, Conservative when it comes to that, and Reform when it comes to that.”
While most Jews join synagogues aligning to their values, Barbadian Jews are forced to gather under one roof. “It’s very hard to bond them together,” said Hassid, citing difficulties such as whether or not to count women for minyan, or to offer female congregants an aliyah. (The community ultimately decided yes on both those questions.)
While infighting can pull small-town communities apart anywhere, much of the damage in Barbados occurred decades ago.
Steven Altman, Paul’s cousin, was witness to and victim of some of his community’s grimmest choices. When Steven was 7, a Lubavitcher mohel came to Barbados and declared all prior bris ceremonies illegitimate, as no mohel had presided. Lining up 17 to 19 boys, Steven recalled, the mohel cut their penises, letting out three drops of blood. “I remember passing out,” he told me.
Then, as an adult, Steven married a gentile. His mother forbade him from bringing his wife to dinners. Steven refused to attend without her, so invitations to family and community functions ended. Ostracized, Steven stopped attending services for two decades.
The old community shunned others, too. The first Steinbok on Barbados had seven children; nearly all had intermarried. Some of their offspring, however, had converted to Judaism. But, according to Steven Altman, the old guard had said they were not proper conversions. Most third-generation Steinboks kept away.
Joseph Steinbok, the second-youngest of the seven children, believes that values have changed. “Now we have interracial Jewish marriages,” he said, “which was unheard of” 40 years ago.
Scott Oran—another Altman cousin—now heads the board and aims to bring back people who were cast out of the community in decades past. Oran introduced a rabbi-in-residence program. (As one congregant oddly put it: “We have a rabbi who comes at Christmas.”) This past Christmas (or Hanukkah), the board invited Rabbi Thomas Soloman, a liberal Briton who accepts Jews of patrilineal descent and interfaith marriages. Soloman even focused one sermon on these more lenient values, pointing to Moses’ and Jacob’s children, from non-Jewish wives, who were considered Jewish.
“There’s a huge willingness to work and to deal and to accept the issues,” Soloman said of the Barbadian congregants, adding, however, “if there’s no spiritual leader, you don’t know which way to turn.” Questions about intermarriage and Barbados’ Jewish future demand answers.
Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesperson for the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, agreed that Bajan Jews need a rabbi, adding that the movement has new or retired rabbis who would love a free winter in the Caribbean. Rechtman, however, told me that finding a rabbi willing to drop everything to come to Barbados has not been an easy task.
If the Amish have a rumspringa, where they spend some of their adolescence enjoying personal and sexual freedoms before committing themselves to their community, Bajan Jews have the opposite: Barbadian Jews spring from their rum-filled island, abandoning freedoms and flings with gentiles, and seek a Jewish partner to take home.
Growing up on Barbados, Oran never had a Jewish girlfriend. While studying at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, he met his wife Sharon and married Jewish. Paul Altman also met his Jewish bride at an American university.
Oran’s two children who live on Barbados and join him on the board, however, did not return with Jewish sweethearts. They are in long-term relationships with gentile partners.
When Scott and Sharon Oran fetched me for Friday night services, I asked about intermarriage.
Scott styled his answers to keep with Conservative Halakha: The mother must convert before the child’s birth, or the child must convert to be considered Jewish.
Sharon interrupted: “I think Scott is giving you the rule, but what’s in his heart is entirely different.”
He did not disagree. However, Halakha does.
We pulled up to Sha’are Tzedek. Besides Jews born on Barbados, the 50-person community comprises Jews from a half-dozen countries, as well as black Bajans who have converted.
“I thought we were going to have a much bigger group,” Oran said.
“It is much bigger than last week,” replied Steven Altman, having returned to the fold.
Seven stood in attendance. The previous Friday, I was told, just two. (In winter, Nidhe Israel is busier thanks to snowbirds and tourists.)
Hassid approached the bimah. The air conditioner hummed. As he sang, four others arrived: the Orans’ two children, Justin and Arel; Justin’s non-Jewish girlfriend; and Leroy McClean, a black Bajan convert.
With 11 Jews (and a gentile), the minyan had formed. The Kaddish was recited, validated, and dedicated to two young congregants from Soloman’s Westminster Synagogue, who had been murdered in the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.
The next week, however, the Barbadian Jews would struggle once more to find a minyan to say Kaddish for the young victims, Neal Rechtman’s wife, and others.
Worrying if Nidhe Israel will survive is no longer a concern for Bajan Jews or the Altman clan. The Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue has been vested in the National Trust and cannot be sold off, as it had been in the past. Should Barbados preserve its Jewish community, Nidhe Israel is theirs to use. Should it die off, the synagogue will remain … just empty.
Paul Altman puts his faith in a Field of Dreams philosophy: He rebuilt Nidhe Israel and he’s sure that Jews (who are attracted to the Caribbean lifestyle and have the ability in this new world to work remotely) will come. So, in his estimation, preserving the synagogue will, in the end, preserve the community.
Others are not so sure.
Steven Altman’s daughter, now 37, was born to a gentile mother. “She considers herself Jewish,” Altman said of his daughter. “In her mind, she’s more Jewish than anything else.”
I asked if the Jewish community accepted his daughter as one of their own.
“I don’t know,” he said, laughing hugely. “My generation has a choice: We either accept them or we’re going to lose the community.”
Arel Oran, who once worked as a recruiter in the United States, said that as a young board member, her focus is on recruitment and appealing to less observant Jews through cultural programming. “The decisions that we make have to support growth and unity,” she said. “In the end, that’s what being Jewish is about.”