Did you know that Jewish people have lived on the Caribbean island of Barbados since 1628? There is now a Barbados Synagogue Historic District located within Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011. Covering an entire city block, many of the buildings in the Barbados Synagogue Historic District date back to the mid to late 17th century and provide insight into the history of the Jews in Barbados. The main buildings for visitors to check out include the historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue, built in 1654 with the original Mikvah (used for ritual baths), the old Jewish Cemetery, and the Nidhe Israel Museum.
Before providing insight into the main buildings to visit in the Barbados Synagogue Historic District, it is necessary to provide insight into the history of Jewish people in Barbados.
Barbados Jewish History Timeline
The Barbados Jewish Community started in 1628, one year after the British established a settlement. Jewish people initially arrived in Barbados from Recife in northern Brazil after Portgual reclaimed the colony, which was briefly under Dutch rule.
After Portgual reclaimed Dutch Brazil (also known as New Holland), they expelled the Dutch, and some Jewish people sought refuge in Barbados. They were Sephardic Jews who had initially fled Jewish settlements in Europe due to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition.
Below is a timeline including references to the Inquisition and the arrival of Jews in Barbados.
1492: Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) signed an edict expelling Jewish people. The Alhambra Decree signed on March 31, 1492, gave Spanish Jews until July 31, 1492, to abandon their religion or leave the land where their families had lived for over a thousand years.
1492 to 1500: Italian explorer Christopher Columbus led three Spanish transatlantic expeditions to the Americas.
1521: The Spanish Inquisition reaches Portugal, and the Jewish Diaspora spread throughout the New World (Americas).
1591: The Spanish Inquisition reaches South America.
1627: Britain established a settlement in Barbados, with Bridgetown soon becoming its center of commerce and habitation.
1628: Jews arrive in Barbados, having fled Jewish communities that were established in Recife, Brazil, due to The Spanish Inquisition. From Brazil, they bring their expertise in the harvesting of sugar cane, the marketing of refined sugar, and the construction of sugar mills.
1644: Sugar plantations and the cultivation of sugar cane drive the Barbados economy, and there is a significant increase in the importation of enslaved Africans.
1654: The Nidhe Israel Synagogue is established in Bridgetown, Barbados. Nidhe Israel means “The Scattered of Israel.”
1655: Oliver Cromwell issues a pass to Dr. Abraham de Mercado to leave the United Kingdom for Barbados to practice his profession. He is joined by his son David Raphael de Mercado, who goes on to invent a new type of sugar mill for use in Barbados that is also introduced to other islands in the Caribbean.
1650s: Wind power replaced animal power in the sugar mills. In the ensuing decades, more techniques were introduced, including manuring, using bagasse (sugar cane residue after the juice is extracted) as fuel for the factory, and cane-holing to combat erosion. These soon made Barbados ‘the richest spot of land in the New World.’
1658: Deborah Burgos and Abraham Elivahu da Fonseca Valle are the first two people buried in the Jewish cemetery next to the Nidhe Israel Synagogue.
1660s: Jewish settlers established a near monopoly in the Barbados sugar industry, incurring the jealousy of non-Jewish planters, which led to the introduction of discriminatory laws by the British.
1688: Legislation was passed which forbade Jews from owning large numbers of enslaved people. It read, “No person of the Hebrew nation shall keep or employ any Negro or Slave more than one Negro or other slave, Man or Boy to be allowed to each person of the said Nation.”
1688: Without the ability to purchase and own large numbers of enslaved Africans, Jewish people in Barbados couldn’t operate sugar plantations profitable. Thus, their focus then shifted from agricultural to mercantile activities.
1700: The Jewish population in Barbados jumped to 250 (the overall population was 3,000).
1739: A dispute erupted at a Jewish wedding held at a second synagogue in Speightstown. The conflict started over the theft of money from the home of the groom’s father. Tension mounted between the Jewish community and the White populace, which resulted in a mob chasing the Jews out of town and sacking the synagogue.
1740: Jews in Barbados have equality before the law and with equality brings prosperity in trade.
1750: The Jewish population in Barbados jumps to 800 (the overall population is 10,000).
1750s: Begin to see a significant decline in the sugar industry.
1831: A major hurricane destroyed the Nidhe Israel Synagogue. It also destroys seven churches and numerous other buildings in Bridgetown. 1500 Barbadians lost their lives during the hurricane.
1831: The massive hurricane caused the majority of the Jewish community to migrate to the United States and the United Kingdom. At the same time, Jewish people in Barbados were granted full political rights.
1833: After nearly two years, the reconstruction of the new Nidhe Israel Synagogue is complete. The new building built on the foundation of the original building was consecrated on March 29, 1833. It measured 2,000 square feet with a 300-person capacity.
1834: Slavery is abolished in the British colonies, including Barbados, and most Jews flee the island nation due to the economic crisis that follows.
1850: The Jewish population in Barbados drops to just 71 people.
1854: A cholera epidemic kills over 20,000 in Barbados.
1873: The remaining Jews in Barbados petitioned for tax relief, which was granted in 1874, so the synagogue and other Jewish property were exempted from parochial and other taxes.
1928: The Jewish population in Barbados drops to just two people.
1929: The Nidhe Israel Synagogue building is sold and used as commercial offices and a law library.
1931: Due to growing antisemitism in Europe, Moses Altman, along with his niece and her husband, left Poland for the Caribbean, settling in Barbados. They are soon followed by 40 Ashkenazi Jewish families seeking refuge from Nazism. They help to reestablish the Barbados Jewish community.
1933: Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, and their antisemitic racism became official government policy.
1939 – 1945: The Holocaust occurs in Germany and all areas of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two. Many German and other European people of Jewish ancestry flee to North America, South Africa, Australia, etc.
1948: Establishment of the State of Israel.
1979: The Barbados Cabinet decided to demolish the Nidhe Israel Synagogue building and use the site to develop a new Supreme Court. However, members of the Jewish community and the Barbados National Trust convinced the Government of Barbados to protect the building and the site. The campaign was led by Henry Altman and Sir Paul Altman, the son and grandson of Moses Altman, who had emigrated from Poland in 1931 and was the first member of the new Ashkenazi community in Barbados.
1985: The Nidhe Israel Synagogue building and surrounding site management are transferred to the Barbados National Trust.
1986: The Synagogue Restoration Project was initiated, and money was raised locally and internationally.
1987: Restoration of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue building is complete, and it once again becomes a place of worship for the Jewish community of Barbados and many visitors.
2004: Guests from around the world attended ceremonies in Bridgetown to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Jewish presence in Barbados.
2008 to 2009: A historic building close to the cemetery grounds is restored and converted into a Jewish museum named the Nidhe Israel Museum.
2008 to 2009: Archaeological excavation of the site between the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Nidhe Israel Museum led to the discovery of a Mikvah. In Judaism, this is a pool of natural water in which one bathes to restore ritual purity.
2016 to 2017: A monument on the former site of Codd’s House is built. Also, there is the restoration of Artisan’s Workshop, the old Fire Station and Weights & Measurement Building, etc.
2020s: The Barbadian Jewish population includes approximately 50 full-time residents. During the winter season ((Hanukkah to Pesach), the Jewish population significantly increases with the arrival of “snowbirds” from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
What to explore in Barbados Synagogue Historic District
The Synagogue Historic District in Bridgetown was developed in the 1980s through a public-private sector partnership between the Government of Barbados, the Barbados Jewish Community, and private benefactors.
This means that the Barbados National Trust owns the redeveloped Nidhe Israel Synagogue and its adjacent cemeteries, ritual Mikvah, and museum. But when not in use by the Jewish Community, visitors to Barbados can head to Synagogue Lane in Bridgetown to explore and learn about the nearly 400-year history of the Jewish people on the island.
Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados
The Nidhe Israel Synagogue was established in 1654, and a major hurricane destroyed the original building in 1831. The original structure covered an area of approximately 2,000 square feet and held about 300 people. It was considered the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The revamped building on the foundation of the original was consecrated in 1833.
The building was sold in 1929 when Mr. David Baeza, who was the last Jewish person on the island could no longer afford to maintain it. The proceeds of £500, along with many of the artifacts, were handed to the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, which was appointed Trustee. The building was used as a law library and commercial officers for a company of traders. When it fell into disrepair, it was seized by the Government in 1983.
It has been beautifully restored and serves as a palace of worship for Barbadian Jews. It is an elegant blend of Jewish, Gothic, Renaissance, and Barbadian architectural features. As you walk around the synagogue, take note of the Holy Ark, Torah Scrolls, Ten Commandments (on the wall), Perpetual Lamp, Bimah, Reading Desk, and the Men’s Seats and Women’s Seats in Gallery. On one of the walls are a few framed newspaper clippings and plaques that provide insight into the building’s rich history.
NOTE: The Nidhe Israel Synagogue is considered the parent synagogue of several synagogues in the United States. This includes the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1658 by fifteen Sephardic Jews from Barbados. Also, the Mikveh Israel (Hope of Israel) Synagogue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was established in 1679 by Jews from Barbados who fled to “The City of Brotherly Love” after legal restrictions were imposed on them. Finally, the Beth Elohim (House of God) Synagogue was established in 1750 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Mikvah in Bridgetown, Barbados
A Mikvah is an immersion bath or pool that is central to Orthodox Jewish religious and community life. Thus, it is not surprising that one was discovered in 2008 by an archaeological team from the University of West Indies under the overall supervision of Dr. Karl Watson and directed in the field by a Ph.D. graduate student Michael Stoner.
The team was initially tasked with removing the existing tarmac of the car park to excavate what was thought to be the foundations of the Rabbi’s house. Instead, they uncovered the Mikvah structure, which is now believed to be the oldest one in the Americas. Research dated the construction to sometime between 1650 and 1654 when the new Sephardic group in Barbados built the Nidhe Israel Synagogue.
Jewish Cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados
As you walk towards the Nidhe Israel Museum and look towards the left, it’s hard not to miss the massive Jewish Cemetery. Over 400 tombs are in the Jewish graveyard, and two of the first people buried there were Deborah Burgos and Abraham Elivahu da Fonseca Valle in 1658. The older graves are flat and made of granite or marble, as is customary in Sephardic graveyards. There are also Ashkenazi graves from the modern Jewish community who still bury their dead there. Many graves have Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Ladino, and English epitaphs. Many also have beautiful iconographies, such as winged angels and the severed tree of life.
Nidhe Israel Museum in Bridgetown, Barbados
The Nidhe Israel Museum, developed in 2008, is housed in a building that dates back to 1750 and previously served as a school for the children of the Jewish community. The structure is made from hand-cut coral stone, whereas the Nidhe Israel Synagogue was built out of rubble stone. The natural coral stone has an appearance similar to the Jerusalem stone.
The interior of the Nidhe Israel Museum was designed to reflect “the fascinating story of hardship, persecution, and hope that led Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews to settle in Barbados and the New World.” Although the Barbados Jewish community was not large in numbers, it profoundly influenced the island nation’s development and destiny.
Thus, as you walk through, here are a few things to note:
- The floor was designed to appear as an extension to the outside graveyard.
- The glass display cases in the floor were partially filled with sand to recapture the feeling of the original Synagogue floor, which would have been covered in sand.
- The internal display wall has rounded corners similar to the Synagogue building. The rounded corners were architecturally designed to strengthen the structure against hurricanes.
- The central glass showcase connecting the two floors provides a reminder of the open design of the synagogue, which allowed viewing from the ladies’ gallery to the main floor. This feature also allows a shaft of light from above to shine down on the most important artifacts and, in particular, the Torah.
- The Museum’s upper level includes an area for archaeological research. There is also a screening room for oral history and relevant films and a library and apartment for visiting religious leaders.
Other notable monuments and buildings in the Barbados Synagogue Historic District
Codd’s House Monument
Directly behind the Nidhe Israel Synagogue is the Codd’s House Monument. Demolished in 1985 and turned into a parking lot, Codd’s House is a home that was owned by William T. Codd, a local businessman during the 19th century. The Barbados government rented the house from 1837 until 1849, and several important pieces of legislation were signed there. This includes the Act of May 1838, which terminated the Apprenticeship System that was established after Emancipation freeing the enslaved Africans was enacted in 1834. Also, the 1840 statute created Bridgetown as the twelfth constituency, which then led to the election of Samuel Jackman Prescod, the first person of color in the Barbados House of Assembly. So why this historic building was torn down is beyond baffling, but at least there is a monument for visitors to learn more about the area’s history.
Visit the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Mikvah, and Nidhe Israel Museum
if you want to learn about the Jews of Barbados and others who resided on other Caribbean islands, then visiting the Barbados Synagogue Historic District is a must! Visiting hours for the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Mikvah, and Nidhe Israel Museum is from Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3 pm. General admission is BDS $25.00 / US $12.50. Groups of ten or more persons are offered a discount, and the fee is BDS $20.00 / US $10.00 per person.
After exploring the Barbados Synagogue Historic District, be sure to check out the other attractions in Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison.