Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund launches its database

The Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund (JJCPF) launched its database of Jewish burial grounds in Jamaica today. Volunteers conducted extensive cataloguing of the sites across the island between 2008 and 2017. They recorded 33 burial locations including synagogue-purchased cemeteries, family burial grounds, those that were sold and no longer exist, and plot markers which were part of an interment ground that is now on residential property.

Volunteers recording in Lacovia Jewish cemetery. (Photo: JJCPF)

I was fortunate enough to meet up with the volunteers during some of their annual trips, and wrote about it. I felt quite inspired by the Jewish volunteers’ dedication and their sheer enjoyment of the work, which was nevertheless quite taxing. They were mostly from New York (some with Jamaican heritage) and other parts of the United States, as well as from Jamaica. It was a fascinating experience for me, personally.

In case you missed it, the link to the launch and the discussion surrounding it is here. I will try to recount some of it below…

Rachel Frankel online.

Rachel Frankel, who has an architectural practice in New York, and Joseph de Leon, a Jamaican of Jewish descent who currently heads the JJCPF, filled us in on the details of the project, and the database itself, on the Zoom/Sephardic World YouTube live stream. By the way, Rachel – who has so much energy – is the co-author of Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries of Suriname

Joseph de Leon online.

So, here’s a little bit of Jamaican history:

In 1661 the English Crown offered 30 acres to settle in Jamaica. Offspring born here had the right to become “English men and women.” Jews, overwhelmingly Spanish and Portuguese, qualified; but rather than establishing sugar plantations, most of them settled in Port Royal and engaged in commerce. The high water table did not favor burials and so they transported their dead across the water to higher ground, to what became the Hunts Bay cemetery – the oldest known denominational cemetery in JA with extant graves dating back to 1672.

After the disastrous earthquake in Port Royal in 1692, the Jewish community moved to Kingston, the emerging capital of Jamaica. They also moved to the old capital, Spanish Town and some of the smaller sea port towns around the island: Falmouth and Savannah-la-Mar, for example. By the early 1700s there were about eighty Jewish families living on the island. By 1730 their numbers had reached nearly one thousand. In Kingston and Spanish Town, the Portuguese Jews and the English/German Jews had separate cemeteries.

So, how many Jews have Jamaica as their final resting place? By Rachel’s count, roughly (very roughly) ten thousand. The only cemetery that is open for burials is three acres on Orange Street in downtown Kingston, surrounded by a brick wall. It is maintained by the United Congregation of Israelites (UCI) in Jamaica and it’s nearly 200 years old.

The Hunts Bay Jewish Cemetery, looking northwards. (Photo: JJCPF)

So what are Jewish burial customs? One has the feet pointing towards the land of Israel; the other points feet to the cemetery entrance. In Hunts Bay all the graves point feet towards the south-east, where the cemetery gate would have been (it’s no longer there). There are no burial registers available for this cemetery but a composite map has been created based on the surveys.

In 1937 Rabbi Silverman of the UCI made an effort to salvage Hunts Bay Cemetery, which was by then disused. In 1961 Philip Wright visited with a photographer and tried to record all the Jewish graves he could find, while researching at the Institute of Jamaica. Their work was published in 1997 and their book is available online via the University of Florida’s Digital Library of the Caribbean.

And in 1998 at a conference at Brown University in the U.S., there was an important meeting – between Rachel Frankel and then President of the UCI and chair of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) Ainsley Cohen Henriques – who invited her to come to Jamaica… to document the cemeteries, bring them to public awareness, preserve them, and make them physically accessible to the public. This was the start of a great deal of incredible team work and a very impressive achievement.

During the launch, I learned about Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) – which is really needed to find unmarked burials. Apparently there are always unmarked graves. I noticed some that are just marked with rows of conch shells. The GPR would make the Hunts Bay survey complete.

For over a decade, with the support of UCI, Frankel recruited some volunteers via Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (CVE), who registered mostly overseas volunteers, while UCI gathered more in Jamaica.

The volunteer group in Hunts Bay, 2008. (Photo: JJCPF)

It’s a complex, detailed process, truly painstaking. The volunteers produced a scaled site survey map, enumerating each grave marker; digital and 35mm black and white film photography of each grave marker; a transcription and English translation of each epitaph; and a description of the condition and all the features of each grave.

But – how to store all this data? It finally came down to a custom-made online database. In 2017 JJCPF was formed and Joseph de Leon (who has ancestors in Jamaica going way back to Dr. Jacob Rodrigues de Leon, one of Jamaica’s first Jewish settlers buried at Hunts Bay) is current President. De Leon worked with a software called Cemify, who were very helpful.

Joseph’s son, also Joseph, taking a photo at the Orange Street Cemetery in Kingston, back in 2015. (My photo)

Joseph de Leon gave an online demonstration using his ancestor’s grave – Dr. Jacob died in 1703 – as an example. It has Spanish, English and Hebrew inscriptions. I wrote about Joseph’s family here and photographed him and his son at Orange Street Cemetery (which is going on the database next year).

The Hebrew translated into English is quite poetic:

The plan now is to add the 13 remaining documented cemeteries to the database. The JJCPF is also working on a name plate project to name those graves that don’t have markers at Orange Street.

Interestingly, one participant in the launch was a member of a group studying the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in the United States, which I only started learning about recently. Jews and also Native Americans were killed, he explained. This group was also looking for forensic evidence.

It is hoped that the Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour, which included the Jewish Cemetery, will be revived in 2022. Marina Delfos is in the top right photo. (Photos from the Facebook page)

I asked about whether there were plans (or had been) to conduct tours of cemeteries. Marina Delfos, who is in Falmouth, responded. She has done amazing work and had a Heritage Walking Tour in Falmouth with cruise ship passengers – in aid of the maintenance of the cemetery, which is the best preserved of them all. She has a Facebook page called Jewish Jamaican Journeys. Many of those who toured the cemetery became quite “emotional,” says Marina.

I do hope the tours in Falmouth, which are on hold for now, will get started again in the New Year, and Marina is aiming to get back to it. I sincerely believe there is huge potential in heritage tourism (as well as eco-tourism) – which involves community-based tourism – in Jamaica. Our Tourism Ministry, however, still seems to be hooked on the all-inclusive, cruise shipping, sun/sea/sand mass market model.

A Jamaican powerhouse of information, insights, and more, Ainsley Henriques believes in maintenance. Not just restoration but maintenance! We are not very good at maintenance in Jamaica. He also lamented the lack of available documentation – so much had been destroyed by fire, earthquake – but that can’t be helped now. He is an avid genealogist and is now delving into family records, births, deaths, marriages, and probated wills. This data will soon be available online.

A part of the Shaare Shalom Synagogue on Duke Street, Kingston. (My photo)

There are just over 100 Jews living in Jamaica – a very small community, of course. Ainsley Henriques noted that many families are of mixed religious beliefs. Many young people go away to study and don’t come back, he added. However, he pointed out that 400,000 or more Jamaicans have Jewish ancestry – “We have been here a long time.”

A beautiful old gravestone I found in one of the cemeteries (I don’t recall which one).

So, how to maintain such a small community, its history and heritage? The Shaare Shalom Synagogue on Duke Street has become a hub, with archives, a reference library and more. The UCI is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, when all the synagogues were joined together, after decades of “wrangling” as Ainsley put it.

Preserving our heritage is not an easy task. The world is rushing headlong, who knows where. We modern humans do not always see the need for “old things.” But we are our ancestors, whether we have long departed from the lands where they lived, whether we have rejected their beliefs and customs.

I congratulate and applaud Rachel, Joseph, Ainsley, Marina, Diane and the entire team, here in Jamaica and overseas, for still believing, caring, and working (and yes, it’s a lot of work!) to preserve and maintain their vibrant legacy. Technology is a wonderful tool for this.

Volunteers busy at Orange Street Cemetery. (My photo)

7 thoughts on “Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund launches its database

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    Dear Emma:

    Thanks so much for your long and detailed blog on our work. Love your selection of photographs. We are so pleased with how the talk went. Rachel and Joe did a fabulous job and we are excited to keep working on the project. Of course, Covid has prevented us from going on our annual trips to Jamaica (we had just returned in early March 2020 when we all got shut down), but it has forced us to be armchair/computer/zoom volunteers and this has yielded some benefit, at least!  I look forward to seeing you when we are able to return. And thanks for your attention. I read your blogs with interest every time one shows up in my InBox.  Stay safe and regards, Diane


    1. Dear Diane: it is so lovely to hear from you! Congratulations on all your wonder work! Yes, I didn’t want to leave anything out and the details are important aren’t they! The talk was great. Oh yes, March 2020 was when COVID officially arrived on this island. We have all retreated since then into the world of technology- but as you say, that hasn’t been all bad in a sense! Yes I so look forward to seeing you. At some point I feel sure there will be a reunion in Jamaica! Please stay safe and well and thank you for your kind comments! Emma


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