How the Jews of Barbados Rescued the Western Hemisphere’s Oldest Synagogue

June 26, 2019 | Noah Lederman
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In 1654, the Portuguese crown reclaimed an area of northeastern Brazil from Dutch rule, causing local Jews—many of whom were descendants of conversos who had come from Portugal as Christians—to flee. A number of them settled on the British-ruled island of Barbados, where they established a synagogue a full 78 years before a similar group of Jews built one in nearby Curaçao. Named Nidḥey Israel, meaning “the dispersed of Israel,” the synagogue has recently been restored. Noah Lederman writes:

For 300 years, Sephardi Jews prospered on the island. They held monopolies in the sugar trade. In the 1700s, the Jewish population peaked at 800—8 percent of the island’s population. And two years before civil and political freedoms were granted to Jews in the Britain, they were given to Barbadian Jews.

Of course, even for a bunch of Jews in the Caribbean, life was no permanent vacation: anti-Semitism rose in tandem with Jewish success in the sugar industry; a second synagogue on the island was mysteriously burned to the ground after a conflict with an uninvited Gentile erupted at a Jewish wedding; and in 1831, a hurricane destroyed Nidḥey Israel. With the storm wrecking both the synagogue and business opportunities on the island, Jews dispersed, leaving few worshippers on Barbados. However, by 1833, those Sephardi Jews who had remained rebuilt Nidḥey Israel, and for nearly a century, they conducted services in the capital city, Bridgetown, until the last Jew on the island died in 1929.

For two years, there wasn’t a single Bajan Jew. But in 1931, an Ashkenazi Jew—Moses Altman, who had seen the writing on the wall in Europe—fled to Barbados. Friends and family followed. The second Barbadian Jewish community had begun. Yet these new arrivals didn’t have a synagogue, for the last Sephardi Jew had sold off Nidḥey Israel, and the building had been converted into commercial offices and a law library. . .

But then, in 1979, the government announced plans to raze the historic Nidḥey Israel structure to build a new Supreme Court. [Fortunately], Paul Altlman [the president of the Barbados National Trust and Moses’ grandson] took decisive action to prevent the demolition of Nidḥey Israel, six years after plans to raze it had first been announced.

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