According to David Stephen Cohen Henriques, rabbi at Shaare Shalom, a synagogue with a congregation that can trace its Jewish roots back to Europeans who came to the Americas with Columbus, Jews were among the first people to come to Jamaica. They came on a number of voyages, working on ships. As they were expelled from Spain and Portugal, they had to find a place to go, and so they came to the Caribbean Island, many working on the ships that brought them. Richard Guy, a Jamaican historian, believes that Jews definitely traveled with Columbus when he made his second trip to Jamaica in 1494 and that Columbus himself may have been a converted Jew. Guy believes there were Jews living in Jamaica before any lived in the United States, and as proof, he points to a Jewish cemetery established in Jamaica in 1692, the oldest Jewish cemetery in North America.
During the 19th century, there were several synagogues in Jamaica, and the Jewish population totaled over 2,500 individuals. There are only some 200 Jews on the island today, according to Henriques. Among the reasons cited for the declining population are assimilation, immigration, and intermarriage.
The Jamaican Jewish heritage survives in the family names of the island’s inhabitants, which leads Henriques to believe that Jamaicans with names such as Levy, Cohen, Decosta, and Desouza have some Jewish heritage, even if they are unaware of it. He believes that Jamaicans with Jewish names are the result of extra-marital relationships as it is the custom to give a child the father’s name even if the parents are unmarried.
The early Jewish community on the island succeeded in setting numerous precedents, with members notable for several “firsts:” the Jamaican artist, the first black millionaire, and the first newspaperman.
1. Isaac Mendes Belisario
Isaac Mendes Belisario, a Jew who lived from 1795 to 1849, is credited as being the first Jamaica artist, although Monique Barnett, assistant curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica, states that there is some disagreement about this because, despite being born in Jamaica, his landscapes are painted in a style that resembles that of British artists and embodies a colonial point of view rather than a Jamaican cultural heritage. However, his art is showcased at the National Gallery as representing the island’s first art works. The works focus on the island’s natural beauty and its people.
2. George Stiebel
George Stiebel was the first black millionaire in Jamaica and lived in Devon House. Stiebel’s father was a German Jew, and his mother was a black Jamaican housekeeper. Stiebel made his fortune by purchasing an abandoned gold mine and then finding there was gold in it, according to Marcia Riley Brown, a museum guide. His mansion is now known for serving the best ice cream on the island.
3. Jacob De Cordova
The Jamaica Gleaner, the oldest operating newspaper in Jamaica, was founded by Jacob De Cordova almost 200 years ago; he was a Jew who was born in Jamaica in 1808. His parents were British Jews of Sephardic ancestry. Following his mother’s death in childbirth, he was sent to England where he was raised by an aunt. He returned to Jamaica at the age of 26 and founded the newspaper with his brother. He later moved to Texas and was elected to the state’s House of Representatives.