Jamaica’s newest tourism spiel: Reggae, beaches and Jews

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KINGSTON, Jamaica — This island nation boasts miles of pristine beaches, reggae music and the Western hemisphere’s largest butterfly.

Now, it’s promoting a new asset to tourists: its Jews.

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KINGSTON, Jamaica — This island nation boasts miles of pristine beaches, reggae music and the Western hemisphere’s largest butterfly.

Now, it’s promoting a new asset to tourists: its Jews.

From the tourism minister on down, Jamaican officialdom has embraced a plan to market the nation’s Jewish history as a way of wooing a new segment of travelers.

No matter that Jamaica has just one synagogue and no rabbi, or that its Jewish community is down to around 200 people. It was once home to a Jewish pirate named Moses, according to one account.

A global economic downturn and “ferocious” competition from Mexico, says Jamaican tourism director John Lynch, mean that every traveler counts these days. Jamaica’s Jewish history, he concedes, has “been a well-kept secret.”

Mr. Lynch wants to put together a tourism package that includes stops at historic Jewish cemeteries, a visit to the island’s synagogue and a traditional post-worship repast with Jewish families—with some beach time thrown in.

Since most of the island’s Jewish history is centered around Kingston, the strategy fits the government’s desire to boost tourism in the scruffy capital city most vacationers skip.

In January, Kingston hosted a five-day conference on Jewish-Caribbean history that drew 200 academics, genealogists and history buffs from Israel to Oregon.

But Jamaica is still finding its way in this new market. Two conference attendees negotiated a kosher meal with a waitress at a Kingston restaurant, insisting that a fish not touch a cooking surface that might have been used to cook meat. “You’ll wrap the fish in two pieces of foil?” a diner shouted as reggae music crackled in the background. “Yeah, mon,” she said.

Ainsley Henriques, an energetic 70-year-old who organized the conference, says Jamaica’s Jewish community does have a rich history. Mr. Henriques, with blue eyes and a lilting Jamaican accent, catches many off guard.

“When I travel, people say to me, ‘What, you’re Jamaican?’ And then, ‘What, you’re Jewish? There are Jews in Jamaica?’ They have no idea we’ve been here for 350 years.”

An ancestor arrived in Jamaica from Amsterdam in 1740. He now serves as the unofficial Jewish historian, and is Israel’s honorary consul in Jamaica.

“I wear many hats. That’s why I’m bald,” Mr. Henriques says.

Starting in the 17th century, Jews fleeing the Inquisition arrived in Jamaica from Portugal and Spain. By the end of the 19th century, Jamaica had six synagogues and around 2,000 Jews. Some thrived as merchants in the shipping trade.

Over generations, many of the island’s Jews married locals and stopped practicing Judaism. Others left to help establish nascent Jewish communities in the American colonies. Recently, young Jews have left to work in Australia, the U.S. and Canada.

The remaining Jews worship at their Kingston synagogue. With no rabbi, services are led by lay people. The synagogue is one of the few in the world with a sand floor—a feature some believe dates from days when Jews had to worship in secret and used sand to muffle footsteps.

Other Caribbean nations also claim Jewish roots. Curaçao says it is among the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere. Its sand-floor synagogue is a popular tourist attraction.

With such a small Jewish community, Jamaica’s Jewish-tourism boosters had to get creative with the visitors’ itinerary.

A tour for conference attendees included a stop at Kingston’s Hillel school. The school runs on a Jewish calendar and has 750 students; around 20 are Jewish.

It also included a kosher lunch at Strawberry Hill, a mountain resort above Kingston owned by Chris Blackwell, founder of music label Island Records. Born in London, he grew up in Jamaica and his mother was Jewish. Mr. Blackwell told the tourists that while he wasn’t raised Jewish, he finds the island’s Jewish history fascinating.

Jamaica may have claim to one unusual historical chapter: Jewish pirates. Among them: Moses Cohen Henriques, who attacked Spanish ships loaded with silver, according to Edward Kritzler’s “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Mr. Kritzler, who attended the conference, is an American who has been in Jamaica on and off since the late 1960s. He’s fond of wearing a Star of David pendant over shirts studded with skull and crossbones.

Many Jewish pirates, he writes, were “secret Jews” who converted to Catholicism in name only to survive the Inquisition, then fled to the Caribbean.

“Jamaica was at one time the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean,” said Jane Gerber, director of the Institute for Sephardic Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It was a hub of Jewish commerce that had a triangular trade with colonial America and England. Jamaica was where they came to get kosher stuff.”

Today, finding a kosher kitchen can be tough. But the island is used to preparing vegetarian meals for its religious Rastafarian population—some of whom consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel and follow Jewish dietary restrictions forbidding shellfish and pork. One Kingston hotel recently purchased new cooking tools dedicated to kosher meals for guests.

Eli Gabay, a Philadelphia lawyer who attended the conference and tour, marveled at a tombstone with his family name on it. Mr. Gabay said he doesn’t know if his family has direct ties to Jamaica, but added, “It brought history to life.”

Behn Goldis, a New York reggae artist and orthodox Jew whose stage name is BennyBwoy, calls himself “the original Jewmaican.”

A former Wall Street analyst, he was invited to the conference to perform. He did so wearing a yarmulke knitted in the colors of the Jamaican flag, braided hair and sunglasses decorated with gold snakes. “I’m not Jamaican. I just love the music and the people,” Mr. Goldis said. “But I really am Jewish.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.