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Jews hold firm Life goes on in old synagogue
published: Tuesday | June 10, 2003

By Mark Dawes, Staff Reporter

IN THE year Spiritual Leader, Ernest DeSouza, died, many wondered what would have been the future of Shaare Shalom, the Jewish Synagogue on Duke Street in Kingston.

Mr. DeSouza was largely acknowledged to be the single most factor why this worship centre did not close its doors when dwindling numbers made it expedient to do so.

But three years later, the band of faithful practitioners of Reformed Judaism have not just continued to meet, but their numbers have experienced modest growth.

REASONS FOR GROWTH

The new Spiritual Leader, Stephen Henriques, attributes the growth to both the foundation laid by his predecessor as well as the excitement that usually accompanies a change in leadership.

The population of Jews in Jamaica, according to Mr. Henriques, is declining. But, he explains, "It is not a matter of the Jews dying out but more so substantially due to migration. In my direct family, more than half live in Canada and the United States. This is just reflecting the general trend in the nation. And with the religion not really proselytising the same way that the Christian religion does, then you are not going to get that influx of people in the same way that the more apostolic types do," he said. By his estimate, there are about 300 Jews living in Jamaica, of which about 200 hold membership in the Synagogue. About 40 of this membership regularly attend.

Mr. Henriques, 42, had been by Mr. DeSouza's side assisting in the liturgy from time to time. Like his late mentor, he is without formal education in theology. Nevertheless, he has read widely and has been in constant correspondence with noted rabbis in the United States for guidance. Lately, he has been assisted in the leadership at the synagogue by Michael Matalon and even more recently by Robert DeSouza ­ Ernest's younger son.

OPEN TO EVERYONE

Anyone is welcomed to worship at Shaare Shalom, says Mr. Henriques. "Many people believe that a Jew is one born into the religion (Judaism). Many believe that a Jew is one who belongs to a race, i.e., born and raised in Israel. Jews are both those things and yet neither. There is no restriction on being a Jew. You can be converted to Judaism as one can be converted to any religion. There is no restriction as to who you are or what you are. A Jew would be anyone who chooses to accept the tenets of the religion ­ the monotheistic tenets and the fact that God is one. We worship not through the Saviour, as in Christianity but directly to God. Our relationship to God is direct. So a Jew could be anyone who accepted those spiritual leanings and that way of worship," he said.

With the demise of Bible knowledge in local schools and the rise in the study of world religions, Mr. Henriques has found himself being called upon to give lectures to students and teachers in training concerning Judaism. He is happy to do so for "it has dispelled a significant amount of ignorance that has been placed on the religion."

Sephardim Jews have been in Jamaica, Mr Henriques noted, from as early as the 15th century when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal because they engaged in proselytising ­ urging Catholics to become Jews. Jewish folklore has it, he said, that the Jews went underground in those days of the Spanish Inquisition and so they met secretly in such places as basements to practise their religion. It was the practice, he said, that sand was placed on the basement's floor to reduce the noise levels that would allow for detection.

In tribute to their ancestors, the Jews, when they got to Jamaica and had established the synagogue in Kingston, decided to keep the floor overlaid with sand to remind them how privileged they were to be in a country where they can worship without fear, Mr. Henriques said. Furthermore, it is partly out of this history of persecution why Jews are not keen on proselytising.

NEEDS A RABBI

After several years of being led by a Spiritual Leader, the synagogue is looking to hire a rabbi. (Rabbi Sidney Lubin was the last Rabbi to have served Shaare Shalom. He served between 1977-1978.) The money to pay the new Rabbi, said Mr. Henriques, is not the foremost problem ­ but to find a Rabbi who does not dread Jamaica because of its sometimes unsavoury reputation with respect to crime. And, also, it remains a challenge to fill the vacancy as not many Rabbis seem keen on serving an extremely small number of worshippers, Mr. Henriques said.

A number of applications, he disclosed, are in hand - one of which is from a woman. He expects to be able to make an announcement on the coming of Rabbi by next year.

There are three main forms of Judaism ­ Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed. At Shaare Shalom, "Our liturgy tends to be Conservative, but in practice it is definitely more Reformed. In Reformed Judaism, he said, women are equal with men to the extent that a woman could be Spiritual Leader or Rabbi. Women are allowed to sit anywhere a man can sit and there is a relaxed dress code and many do not follow the dietary laws of Leviticus.

Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, "is basically fundamentalist Judaism and strict following the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud to the letter. They eat only kosher and women are excluded from taking part in the service." Women, Mr. Henriques continued, are made to sit separately from men and a strict dress code is observed.

Conservative Judaism is less strict than Orthodox and women and men sit together. However, women don't take part in the liturgy. The dress code, though, is more liberal and more adherents are kosher.

Mr. Henriques said the Jewish faith "has much to teach the nation about how to live a virtuous life ­ a life of purpose and positive thinking. The next few years, he said, will be devoted to encouraging its youth in Jewish living "to respect our religion, not to be embarrassed by it, and not to lose their sense of identity."

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