Rabbi Fills Long-Vacant Spot: Spiritual Leader of Jews in Jamaica

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Shaare Shalom shul

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan (left) is spiritual adviser to Nigel Chen-See, who came to Judaism later in life. Shown here, Chen-See celebrates at his conversion service by reading the Jewish declaration of faith and other prayers. Photo credit: Provided.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is a man of much faith. Three years ago, he left his Reform synagogue in Albany, Georgia, to take a rabbinic position that had sat vacant for more than three decades: the spiritual leader of Jews in Jamaica.
The rabbi, who is shorter in stature and just beginning to gray, says he has a vision, one that is rooted in more than 300 years of Jewish history on the island, but that aims toward a future that he hopes will “inspire brethren around the world.”
“My vision is to open up the synagogue and bring people in … to make Jamaican Judaism more accessible, more modern, more spiritual,” said Rabbi Kaplan during a recent meeting at an upscale hotel in Kingston. The city is home to the majority of Jamaica’s Jews and its only synagogue, Shaare Shalom, and Hillel Academy.
Shaare Shalom shul

A congregant meditates during the Friday night Shabbat service. Around 20 people come to prayer at Shaare Shalom on Friday nights. Photo credit: Maayan Jaffe.

A Friday night service at the combination Sephardic-Ashkenazi shul averages twenty people. In Kaplan’s mind, the approximately 400-seat shul, with its sand-covered floor, high beams and almost-majestic turquoise window coverings, could be full of spiritual seekers, converts, followers of Rastafarian faith who relate to the Jewish message, and lost Jews who are slowly returning to their religion. Many Jamaican Jews, he said, were long ago assimilated – likely intermarried – but they still have a Jewish spark.
The Jews of Jamaica arrived with Columbus in 1494. They were not practicing Jews at the time, having been given the choice by the Spanish government of converting to Catholicism or going into exile. These Jews were known as Conversos. Some managed to escape Spain for Jamaica, in search of religious freedom. While there are not good records from that time as a result of natural disasters, it is assumed that some tried to practice their faith on the island, albeit discreetly.
Over the course of the next decades, Conversos found their way out of Spain and Portugal to communities in Germany, England and the Netherlands. From there, over the next 150 years, they continued northeast to the Caribbean, including to Jamaica. The earliest known outwardly Jewish settlers made their homes in Port Royal after the capture of the Island by the English in 1655, and then in Spanish Town and Kingston. Pockets lived in smaller island towns, like Falmouth and Montego Bay.
Although much of the city of Port Royal literally sank into the ocean following the earthquake of 1692, evidence suggests there was a synagogue in Port Royal. Approximately two dozen Jewish cemeteries also pay credence to the Jewish community that was.
At its height, in the 1800s, according to genealogist and Jamaica historian Ainsley Henriques, more than 2,500 Jews lived in Jamaica.
Over the years, the community’s size ebbed and flowed, as the Jamaican melting pot of Black, Jewish, Indian, and Chinese people lived with and married each other, often diluting or intermingling their roots. Henriques purports there may be as many as half-a-million people of Jewish descent in Jamaica. The phone books are filled with Cohens and Levys. But for most, these Jewish roots are but a memory of a great-grandparent, if at all.
In the mid-1970s, there was a massive Jewish migration out of Jamaica, as industrial unrest and leftward political shifts led to high levels of social and economic upheaval.
“Whenever there is trouble, Jews move on,” said Paul Matalon, 62, who was born and raised in Jamaica, but left for 20 years during that period.
Among the migrants was the synagogue’s then spiritual leader, Englishman Rabbi Bernard Hooker who left the shul to retire in his homeland. His exit left the synagogue leaderless. The void was filled by a series of dynamic lay people … until 2011.
Shaare Shalom shul

Israeli reggae artist Lior Ben-Hur arranged for a band of Jamaican locals to accompany him in leading a Friday night service at Shaare Shalom. The band's Saturday night concert, also at the synagogue, was packed. Photo credit: Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan.

“We were looking to re-inculcate a sense of spirituality and Jewishness,” said Henriques of the decision to hire Rabbi Kaplan.

Kaplan came in ready to make change. He launched Hebrew classes – “The congregation has no way to access the texts of our tradition,” said Kaplan – offered musar in his home, and quickly completed the conversions of about a dozen people.
His ideas were met with enthusiasm by some. Others turned a cold shoulder, dividing the already small congregation.
“Everything, he has to fight to get it done,” said Matalon. “There is a lot of division between the elder and the younger.”
On the surface, the opposition seems little different from that in North America, as reflected in the recent report on American Jewry by the Pew Research Center. Members of the younger generation, such as Matalon’s son, Andrew, say they don’t need the four walls of the synagogue to practice their Judaism.
“I don’t think I need to go to temple to say I am Jewish,” said Andrew Matalon. “I identify as Jewish and people know that.”
But Kaplan believes, in Jamaica, the situation is slightly different, as the congregants “don’t understand what the tradition means or why it was developed,” and so they hold steadfast to “the way it always was.” There’s a fear of change. The previous synagogue president, Stephen Henriques, said the rabbi “just doesn’t get” the community.

In his speech on June 20, Kaplan spoke about the Jewish rebel, Korach, and how he was condemned for his antagonistic opposition to Moses and Aaron. He implored the congregation to remember respect for their Jewish teachers and suggested there are right and wrong ways to express concerns.

Shaare Shalom

Shaare Shalom synagogue is located in Kingston, Jamaica. The city is a hotbed of crime and violence, but also home to the majority of Jamaica's Jews. Friday night services take place before candle lighting so congregant can leave before it gets too dark or late. Photo credit: Maayan Jaffe.

But while Kaplan struggles for success on the sands of Shaare Shalom, he has become the rabbi of the people of Jamaica. He said people of all religions regularly reach out to him for guidance, and he has met many a wandering Jew on a mission for meaning.
“I have met and interacted with numerous individuals who come searching for the Jamaican Jewish community in an effort to discover their own Jewish identities,” said Kaplan. “Some of those who seek us out come away with a new perspective on life and a revitalized commitment to their Jewish observance.”
Kaplan tells a story of an elderly Catholic man he was called to see on his deathbed. When he arrived, the man’s son said his father was Jewish but had converted to Catholicism when he married 50 years prior. Before he died, the son knew his father would want to see Kaplan.
“I said a blessing for him,” recalled Kaplan. “Judaism was something he lost – but he didn’t really want to lose it. He was just thrilled.”
There are also Jews like Terry Hall-Knight who reconnected with her Judaism shortly before she gave birth to her son, Baruch. Terry’s mother had been converted by her father in order to attend a Christian boarding school abroad. Terry first found Rastafarianism and later learned of her Jewish roots. She married a Jewish man. Today, she sends her child to Hillel Academy.
“I was very angry with my grandfather for severing that link,” said Hall-Knight, who said Kaplan has brought to the shul the “intimate and academic Judaism” she was looking for. She described her Judaism as “Jamaican Judaism,” defined as a Judaism that embraces the Jamaican tagline “Out of many, one people” and adheres to Bob Marley’s belief in “one love.”
Shaare Shalom shul organ

The Shaare Shalom service is accompanied by organ. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan is pushing to stop this practice and replace it with something he considers more authentic to Jamaica. Photo credit: Maayan Jaffe

“Vivid in my heart” is the memory of the Friday night service led by Israeli reggae artist Lior Ben-Hur, who Kaplan helped bring to Kingston. On Saturday night they had a concert; the synagogue’s wooden pews were full. Kaplan has pushed to get rid of the congregation’s organ.
There are others like Nigel Chen See, a Chinese Jamaican who discovered Judaism later in life while attending a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah.
“The story of Torah speaks to me,” said Chen See, 55. “I feel at peace with Judaism.”
Chen See, who completed his conversion under Kaplan, attends services weekly. His wife and children remain Christians.
Chen See noted that in 1844, Dr. Lewis Ashenheim predicted that the Jewish community of Jamaica was headed into extinction, a sentiment that was repeated by his grandson, Jamaica’s first ambassador to Washington Sir Neville Ashenheim, more than a century later.
“He was wrong,” said Chen See proudly.
The rabbi, too, said he will not give up hope for success – for renaissance.
Each Friday night Kaplan reads aloud a prayer he penned for the people of Jamaica: “May all the people of our beautiful island nation live happily and prosper. … Teach us to respect the many ways that we may serve You in a country with so many religious faiths and traditions. … We join together in one love, one heart. …”
Said Kaplan matter-of-factly, “I have been preparing for this task all my life.”

Maayan Jaffe is senior writer/editor at Netsmart, the former editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Jewish Times and a regular freelance writer for JNS.org.