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03 December 2010

The Jews of St. Thomas

Like so many of it's Caribbean neighbors, the history of the Jews of St. Thomas dates back to the 1600's. The first Jews to arrive were traders who came when the island was under the control of Denmark. These people, whom started arriving in 1655 were involved in the trade of items such as rum, molasses and sugarcane. The Jews began to settle on the Island after 1685, the year they were given religious freedom.

In 1796 the first synagogue was established on St. Thomas. As of 1801 there were only 9 Jewish families who belonged to the congregation, but as new arrivals came from France and England and also the Caribbean islands of Curacao and St. Eustatius, the population had grown to 22 families in just a few years. In 1804 that first synagogue was destroyed by fire and replaced in 1812. The Congregation grew so large that in 1823 it was dismantled and a third, larger building erected in the same location. It was named the Congregation of "Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds."

By the year 1831, the congregation had grown to over 60 families, when a fire destroyed the building. It was rebuilt 2 years later. Today it is the second oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere and the longest in continuous service under the American flag.
Many of the congregations that were established in the United States before 1850, have representatives from the various Caribbean islands and St. Thomas was no exception. One of the most famous Jews to leave for the United States from the US Virgin Islands was Judah Philip Benjamin.

More will be written about Judah Philip Benjamin in an upcoming article, however he was one of the most distinguished men of the south during the United States Civil War. Not only was he a U.S. Senator and lawyer, but also served as attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state under Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

The Family History Library has in its collection some of the records of the Jewish congregation of St. Thomas. Those records, which date back to 1786 are now being added to the Knowles Collection- Jews of the Caribbean database and will be available after the next update.

1 comment:

  1. my wife and i visited st. thomas and had the blessing of going to your synagogue.we felt the presence of the holy spirit.we are members of calvary church merritt island ,fla.and will pray for Gods blessing for your members and rabbi. our best wishes and prayers.

    Lew and Dorothy Youngman Genesis 12:3 9/9/12