The Jamaica Projects
Jamaica, a land known for its tropical beaches, reggae music and lush Blue Mountains, is also home to a Jewish community whose history on the island dates back over 350 years. Rastafarians claim a Jewish link, Jewish iconography adorns rocks, walls and fence posts throughout the island, and Reggae music often reveals Jewish themes, but despite these ostensible connections very few in Jamaica are actually aware that a synagogue exists or that there have ever been traditionally practicing Jews on the island.
What the Jews really wanted when they came to Jamaica was just freedom to practice - to live, and to practice their religion.
It is said that Jews first came to Jamaica on the ships of Columbus, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Since, they have practiced peacefully in Jamaica for hundreds of years. As recently as the 1950s and 60s they numbered well over a thousand, regularly packing their beautiful Synagogue in downtown Kingston for Shabbat services. Today, however, barely 200 Jewish Jamaicans remain and their stories teeter at the brink of total extinction.
Over the past several decades, due to economic challenges, political uncertainties and rising crime rates, close to a million Jamaicans, Jews and non-Jews alike, have emigrated to the UK, the US and Canada. Today, it is estimated that the total number of Jamaicans living overseas is equal to the number now living on the island. The significance of this wave manifests in every facet of Jamaican life and is also seen dramatically in the dwindling numbers of Jamaica’s Jewish population, a community now struggling to survive. Their efforts to maintain community, culture and tradition in the face of these challenges have resulted in their establishing a Jewish Heritage Centre, hosting international conferences in Kingston, and uniting together across culture and background to preserve this rich legacy.
What has also resulted is a congregation more diverse than any other. Within this single community are Jews whose families in Jamaica go back hundreds of years, others who immigrated to Jamaica from Syria and Libya identifying as “Arab Jews”, and still others who grew up as “typical” Jamaicans only to discover their Jewish ancestry late in life – a history that linked them to a culture they never knew. While each maintains a very unique perspective through which to examine recent Jamaican history as well as identity they all share a passion for Jamaican Jewish heritage and the synagogue in which they worship. They unite together each Shabbat though sons, daughters and siblings move abroad in search of greener pastures. They unite without their spouses who often practice different faiths. They unite despite a lack of an ordained Rabbi, still worshipping as best they can with what they can.
Once a burgeoning community with packed Synagogues every Shabbat, today the Jews of Jamaica number under 200 practicing members. They fight hard for their heritage against the challenges that plague Jamaica’s capital while relishing a culture that celebrates its Jamaican identity as much as Jewish Tradition. Through a series of interwoven portraits, this feature length documentary offers the chance to explore the city of Kingston, Jamaica and the dramatic historical changes of the past several decades through this unique point of view, while at once bearing testimony to their fascinating personal histories of the Jewish community.
“Why is there a contradiction in your mind, between me as a Jew and my color?” - Winston Davidson, Hazan
“There are times when visitors would come looking for their kinship and I always wanted to be here so that whoever should come there would be someone that they would meet who would greet them.” - Patrick Mudahy
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