Past houses in pastels shades of blues and traditional pink and after a few turns, Randy, my driver maneuvers his way down a narrow one way street which is filled with greyish buildings in a state of disrepair. This is The Synagogue Lane in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Suddenly emerging like an oasis in the desert, The Synagogue, a neo-classical beauty adjacent to a well tended burial ground, freshly painted in light pink featuring a sturdy white balustrade, appears. The building, originally built in l654, has an impressive and dramatic history.
I wait for Paul A., a prosperous Barbados resident, businessman and the catalyst of the Synagogue Restoration Project. He has promised to give me the grand tour. Unfortunately, when he arrives with his wife Rochelle, president of the Jewish community, the key to the chain-locked wrought iron gate, doesn’t fit. While we wait for his cousin Ben G., an Englishman who has lived in Barbados for 35 years, to bring the key, Paul tells me the background of the Jews of Barbados. If anyone knows the history, then Altman is the one.
In l932 his grandfather Moshe, re-established this once Sephardic synagogue. Now an Ashkanasy “shul”, the record is worthy of a book. While we talk about the community, tourists off a cruise ship come by for a visit to. They wait to be let in and finally give up. The first Jewish inhabitants also waited. As early as l628, some Jews who had been forced to leave Spain and Portugal in 1492 took refuge in Brazil, which was then an under Dutch rule. However, when the Portuguese reclaimed Brazil from the Dutch, the Jews were once again on the run and many found acceptance in Barbados. Even though there was discrimination, the small population prospered and established a monopoly in the sugar industry. For 112 years, the Jews continued to live with bigotry and finally in 1831 they received “permanent and practical freedom in both civil and political matters”. A commitment to their religion led the “Kal Kadosh Nidhe Israel (the holy scattered congregation of Israel) to finally build a synagogue for the 300 Jews. Until then, they had worshipped in homes.
A natural disaster on the island, in l831 devastated the original building. Fundraising soon took place and a 2000 square foot synagogue was restored in l833. However, by then the Jewish population had dwindled from 300 to 90, many moving to England and the States.
Records show that at the turn of this century, only 2 Jews were practising members of the congregation. Because of difficult cash flow, the synagogue was finally sold in l925 to the government and the cemetery grounds were leased to the Jewish community for a dollar a year. The building itself was then used for offices and a warehouse.
Enter Moses Altman, a Polish trader. In l931, on his way to Venezuela, Altman stopped and decided to stay and within a year brought his family to the island. At this point in Barbados, there were no other Jews. Altman, the elder, was instrumental in establishing a cohesive group who continued to worship at his home, thus once again establishing a united Jewish community.
Still waiting back at the gate with Paul A., a fit, lean man in his late forties, recalls how he launched the Synagogue Restoration Project and raised funds worldwide (most came from Barbadians). “It was a non-descript edifice and all the surrounding buildings were being torn down. The city wanted this building and the cemetery. My father, Henry, said there was no way they would be allowed to do this sacrilegious thing. Discussions were held and the government said it would return the building to us to restore if we could raise the funds,” he says proudly discussing his father, Henry’s involvement, The project cost US $l million.
“While I was growing up, the community had expanded to 35 families. It was a vibrant environment,” he recalls, his accent definitely Bajan. “We started to restore the building in l978.” But tourism had started to develop in the early 60s and people wanted to see their ancestry. Heritage tourism became the buzzword. “If the synagogue wasn’t heritage, then nothing was.”
This Synagogue, second oldest in the western Hemisphere, doesn’t have a Rabbi “We have lay preachers who do a great a job.” A Bar Mitzvah actually took place in l996. Ben G., Honorary Counsel for Israel to Barbados, arrives. The gates open, I walk past a replica of a marble fountain, which was used for washing of hands. The original is now in their National Museum.
Inside Barbadian mahogany has been used for the pews and the tabernacle and bema. Delicate latticework circle above. Ten columns, now painted in faux marble, flank the 300 seats as the hurricane-styled chandeliers light up room. Very little is original but whenever available photos showed certain items, they were duplicated. The marble floors are from the original building and the newest addition, a Torah, is from Prague.
Ben G. and his wife Leah, and I walk through the cemetery. Here, Leah takes the lead and shows where her relatives are buried. A cousin of Paul A., she is another of the distinguished off-springs of Moshe Altman.
After the chain is back on the gate, we say our farewells. Back in the car, Randy drives around the corner past Jew Street, to the Montefiore drinking fountain with the names of distinguished citizens. The inscriptions, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence are as relevant today as they were when Jews first settle in the Barbados.