Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sand, Sun and Jewish History

Ninety-nine years ago today, Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas (as well as the smaller surrounding islands) were transferred from the dominion of Denmark to the possession of the United States. As territories previously controlled by the Danish, the islands that are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands had a Jewish history dating back to the seventeenth century. Not only were there Jews living on the Island of Saint Thomas, but in 1684, King Fredrick III appointed Gabriel Milan, a Jew, as governor of Saint Thomas. He did not hold the position long, or well - after 16 months he was recalled, put on trial for abuse of powers and executed.

Saint Thomas maintained a Jewish population that peaked at around 800 families, making Jews a significant part of the entire population at the time in mid-1800s. The first synagogue was founded in 1796, and is considered to have been in continuous use since then (making it the oldest continuous-use synagogue on American soil). There were, however, several fires that interrupted the schedule and caused rebuilding (1804, 1831). It was last rebuilt in 1833. Located in the city of Charlotte Amalie, the architecture of the  St. Thomas Synagogue (originally known as  Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, currently The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas) reflects the beautiful traditions of the Sephardic Jews who originally founded the congregation. It is one of the few synagogues that still has a sand floor, a practice believed to have originated with the secret meeting places of the Jews in post-expulsion Spain. Since 1833, the only week that Shabbat services were not held was during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. St. Thomas now has a steady and active Jewish community that also includes a Chabad Lubavitch Center.

Saint Thomas’ sister island, Saint Croix, also has record of early Jewish settlement. While it is known that the oldest grave in the cemetery dates back to 1779, it is believed that there was a synagogue as early 1766. Currently, the island is home to Congregation B’nai Or Synagogue.

Famous American Jews connected to the Virgin Islands include David Levy Yulee and Judah. P Benjamin.

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