KINGSTON, Jamaica – The first ordained rabbi in 40 years to serve the Shaare Shalom Synagogue of Kingston, Jamaica, has attracted to his conversion classes candidates who include descendants of its once much larger and thriving population.
The tropical island’s active and affiliated two hundred or so members of The United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica (UCIJA) are a remnant of a community whose Sephardic roots go back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus (who was possibly a converso Jew). There are columns of Levys and Cohens listed in the Kingston phone book and the UCIJA’s website says, “Today many of the island’s leading professionals, businessmen and leaders generally can trace Jewish ancestry in their genealogy.”
Formerly with a congregation in Georgia, Rabbi Dana Evans Kaplan now leads worshipers at the Dutch and Sephardic synagogue, a whitewashed structure with sand floors in Old Kingston. A graduate of Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College with a PhD in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University, he took his new pulpit last September. Kaplan is no stranger to either the conversion process or to the Caribbean, as his doctoral thesis was on conversion to Judaism in early America, and he has written about Cuban Jewry.
Before his arrival, services and classes had been led by congregants, including Stephen Henriques, a descendant of an old Jamaican Jewish family. There were also conversion ceremonies. “While Stephen had no formal training, he was very enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. I don’t know what percentage of the people he taught are still attending our synagogue, or still practicing Judaism somewhere else, but I would imagine it would be quite high,” said Kaplan, who added that some converts also led services.