200th Anniversary of the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas

200th Anniversary of the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas

by Vivian Williamson-Bryan 

Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas
St. Thomas Synagogue – Photo Courtesy of Peter E. Lee

You’re invited! You, me, all of St Thomas and the world in general has been invited (this is going to be some party) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas. Wait! I know some of you are getting ready to click onto another page since you figure “I’m not Jewish, who cares?”. You know I wouldn’t bore the pants off of you and I promised you last week that I’d take a short break from the beach so why not take in one of St Thomas’s top tourist attractions (for the thinking tourist, that is – we’ll discount the hordes of cruiseship passengers who are only interested in shopping. Not that I would ever belittle that activity – I can hold my own with the best of them) while they’re pulling out all the stops.

As things go in St Thomas 200 years is not breathtakingly old – after all, Columbus did stumble upon these islands in 1493 (a tidbit for you – the Virgin Islands were named for St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins – I guess Chris was impressed with how many islands, islets and cays he found while exploring the area). St Croix was actually colonized before us but in 1671 a permanent settlement was established in St Thomas by the Danes (the Danish flavor is still quite evident – we may be owned by the U.S. now but it’s obvious they weren’t the first). Being rather literally minded souls, they named the town Taphus since it was party headquarters for the area’s pirates (always a colorful, fun-loving lot) and also provided a big night out for the island’s planters. Over time, though, things became more staid (sounds kind of like life, doesn’t it?) and religion gained a foothold. There were a number of houses of worship established in the 18th century and 1796 was the year for the Hebrew Congregation (I told you this was some party – it’s lasting more than a year).

Things did not exactly start with a bang – records show that in 1801 only 9 families belonged. But the island’s sugar, molasses and rum trades were a draw for Jewish merchants, ship chandlers (those pirates needed supplies) and traders so things were bound to grow. Today there are approximately 600 members – not a huge amount when compared to the Lutheran or Moravian churches (the Lutherans , of course, had a big boost from the Danish settlers and the Moravians were the first to send missionaries to proselytize among the slaves) but it’s always been a very influential group. Probably the most famous member (there have been a couple of V.I. governors and at least 1 U.S. senator but unless you’re from here I’m sure you’ve never heard of them) was Camille Pissaro, the father of French Impressionism (yes, he’s a born Thomian – our world-famous native son).

The Hebrew Congregation is older than the building it occupies since the original burned down in 1804 but even so this synagogue (built in 1833 after a couple of interim synagogues – the last of which also burned down! An interesting footnote – that structure burned on New Year’s Eve in 1831. There might have been a chance of saving it were it not for the surrounding streets being jammed with merrymakers, all of whom, it was said, were ”drunk and unfit” to fight the fire. St Thomas has always taken partying seriously – from the days of Taphus to the present Carnival!) is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. There are older ones in Rhode Island and Georgia but they’ve had lapses so we win the title. This synagogue is also one of the oldest in the western hemisphere (3rd oldest actually – Curacao is 1st and Barbados 2nd).

It is a beautiful, history-rich structure. Its massive stone (local) and brick (it came to the island as ship’s ballast. The previous buildings were also constructed from ship’s ballast – pitch pine, a truly wonderful kindling still found in some of the island’s older structures – even now it burns in a distinctly recognizable manner. After 2 fires the congregation decided enough was enough.) walls have withstood numerous hurricanes (the latest was Hurricane Hugo in 1989). The shuttered windows keep the interior cool and also help in hurricane-proofing since they allow for free passage of air while blunting some of the fierce winds (when you hermetically seal a building you’re liable to see the roof go sailing off – those old time builders knew what they were about – sometimes more than modern day ones!). The accoutrements inside bespeak of the love the congregants held for their house of worship. The mahogany benches, the bima and the Ark are constructed from local mahogany trees which used to flourish here (unfortunately, except for a few, they have been pretty much decimated – and not by nature). The French crystal chandeliers, heavy silver candlesticks, and a menorah dating from the 11th century were all brought to this tiny island more than 150 years ago to beautify and enrich their synagogue. (Considering what a joy it is even now to import building materials or furnishings – she says sarcastically – I can imagine what it was like in those pre-fax, pre-telephone sailing ship days.)

All those beautiful antiques notwithstanding, probably the most striking feature of the synagogue is its sand covered floor. I have been told that there are two theories for this practice. The first is that it is symbolic of the desert that Moses and the Children of Israel wandered for 40 years. The second theory has its roots in practicality so is more likely to be the real one. This one is that during the Spanish Inquisition (a truly horrendous time for any non-Catholic – Torquemada was the epitome of misguided religious fervor gone haywire), the Sephardic Jews were forced to practice their religion in secret. They covered their floors with sand to muffle the sound of their prayers and their comings and goings. That tradition was maintained by them when they migrated to the Caribbean in the 16th century and has been preserved in this synagogue and a few others (notably ones in Jamaica, Barbados and Suriname).

So now that you know about this beautiful structure let me tell you about a couple of people who have already accepted their party invitations. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is coming. Poet Maya Angelou will be here to deliver a lecture. Violinist Yitzhak Perlman will perform at a concert. Camille Pissaro (I know he’s dead) will be represented in an international art exhibition highlighting his works. Pretty good company, huh?

All this hoopla will continue until June 1996 so you have time to participate (not that the synagogue is going anywhere – it will be just as historically appealing even after everyone’s left the party) in the celebrations. We’ll all be there – hope you can come too!