Jewish History of St Maarten
Over the last 10 years Dr. Steven and Beth Weiss have been interested in the subject of the Jewish Diaspora in the Caribbean. They are not archaeologists or historians, rather are both in the medical profession. Steven is a pediatrician and Beth is a pediatric nurse practitioner however they became interested in the Jewish Diaspora in the Caribbean history when they quite literally stumbled on Honen Dalim on St Eustaius in 1982 on their honeymoon. Since then they have read whatever they could find on the subject and have visited Jewish sites in Curacao (Mikve Israel), St Thomas (Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim), Barbados (Nidhe Israel) and St Eustatius (Honen Dalim).
Jews went to the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th Centuries for a variety of reasons. The Caribbean provided the economic opportunities afforded by the agricultural industries in such places as the plantations of Brazil, Barbados, Martinique and later the mercantilism of the free ports of St Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Curacao and St Thomas. The Caribbean also provided an escape from the tyrannical Rabbis of Amsterdam. These Rabbis were zealous in their religious dogmatism and very quick to excommunicate those who questioned their authority. Conversos were freer in the United Provinces but they still had to abide by the strict rules their Jewish religious leaders demanded of the community. Many young Jews rebelled and left for the New World. There is also some popular literature which support the hypothesis that some young Jews left for the Caribbean to join privateers (pirates??) and seek wealth and revenge against the Spanish and Portuguese Finally there is firm evidence that some poor Jews were paid stipends to leave Amsterdam on the condition that that they not return for l5 years.
What follows is my attempt to prove that a Jewish community did exist on the Dutch island of Sint Maarten in the late 18th century till the early 19th century and that they either built or utilized an existing structure as a house of worship. I speculate that the ruins behind the Guavaberry Emporium on Front Street in Phillipsburg is the unstudied remnant of that Synagogue.
EVIDENCE OF A JEWISH COMMUNITY
The request to the Mahamad of Talmud Torah
The request to the Mahamad of Talmud Torah, the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam (Portugees-Israëlietische Gemeente) dated Nov 16,1783 by the Parnassim of the Sint Maarten Jewish community for authorization to form a congregation and to draw up bylaws provides documentary evidence for the existence of a Jewish community on the island. In response to their request, the leaders of the Amsterdam community delegated their secretary Daniel Jesuren Lobo to discuss the subject with the attorney of the Dutch West Indian Company (GWIC). It is reported by Emmanuel (History of the Jews of the Netherland Antilles) that the GWIC directors gave their consent.
This request by the leaders of a Jewish congregation would time the Jewish presence on St Maarten to follow the attack and dispersion of Jews resulting from the British attack of and occupation of St Eustatius in February 1781 led by Admiral George Rodney.
We the gentleman of the Mahamad. having received a letter from the Parnassim of the Holy Congregation of St Maarten stating that they wish to form a community and bylaws, for the which purpose they request us to obtain the Sovereign’s approval and authorization.
Among the epitaphs found in the cemetery on St Eustatius is the burial marker for Rachel Pereira who died in 1787 (Oct 18,1787 – 9 Hesvan 5548) at the age of 3 years. Her father is noted as Issac Haim Pereira son of David Israel Pereira, the treasurer of the St Eustatius Jewish community in 1790. From the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam Archives (Emmanuel) it is known that Issac as well a his father David and brother Moses corresponded with the Amsterdam community on behalf of the community in Sint Maartin. The presence of the Pereira family on both islands provides a documentary link between the Jewish community of Sint Maarten and St Eustatius.
EVIDENCE FOR A SYNAGOGUE
Marten Douwes Teenstra (1795-1864) , a well respected author and visitor to St Maarten/St Martin, wrote in 1836 in De Nederlandsch West-Indische Eilanden:
Van de vroeger bestaan hebbende Synagogue, op het Oosteinde der Achterstraat, aan de Zuidzijde, is niets meer overig dan eenige puinhopen, die boven het hooge onkruid uitsteken.
In the in former days a Synagogue existed, on the East end of the Backstreet, on the south side, is nothing more remaining than a few heaps of rubble, which stick out above the high weeds.
Van de Episcopale kerk, bij de orkaan van 1819 ingestort,en het daarop volgende jaar verkoct,bestaat niets meer.
Of the Episcopal Church, in the hurricane of 1819 collapsed, and the following year (verkoct), no longer exists.
“The east end of backstreet on the south side” corresponds to an unmarked vacant lot behind what is now the Guavaberry Emporium. The location of a “synagogue ” at this site by Teenstra in 1836 and later by Johan Hartog in 1981 (History of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin) is consistent with folklore that places a Synagogue behind what was previously known as the West Indian Tavern. Google map below.
Hurricane of 1819
The hurricane that Teenstra references in his diary occurred on September 21,1819. It destroyed much of Dutch St Maarten killing more than 200 people and destroying 384 houses. In this diary Teenstra recorded that only 26 houses in Phillipsburg were partially useable and that the economy was totally ruined at the time of his visit in 1829.
In his survey and study of this site, published in the Bulletin of the Sint Maarten Historical Foundation entitled Synagogue, Professor Norman Barka in 1993 described the ground archeology of the vacant lot and alley. He found the archeological remnants of a small building (a square building with an exterior dimensions of 13 feet square and an interior dimensions of 10 feet square) and a low circular wall with a diameter of 12-15 feet immediately adjacent to the northwest corner of the building. See below.
In his discussion Professor Barka concludes that it is “very doubtful that the structure described was a synagogue”. He writes that there is nothing inherent about the building itself to prove its former function as a synagogue.
Professor Barka also notes, that according to Hartog, after 1800 the congregation disbanded and the synagogue building was a ruin as early as 1820. This would time it’s destruction to the hurricanes of September 21,1819 which destroyed most of Phillipsburg as per Teenstra who reported that “just 26 houses had been kept habitable to some extent, those remaining turned into a heap of ruins ”
A mezuzah is a parchment scroll containing the Jewish prayer, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), which is mounted on the doorposts of Jewish homes and buildings including synagogues. The exact placement of the Mezuzah is dictated by Jewish law but differs in Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. In both traditions the exact placement is on the right side of the doorpost, as entering, approximately two-thirds from the bottom.
Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish traditions differ in the orientation in which the scroll is mounted. Ashkenazi Jews tilt the mezuzah so that the top slants toward the room into which the door opens to accommodate the variant opinions of medieval Rabbis. Most Sephardim attach the mezuzah vertically in agreement with the Jewish book of codes, the Shulchan Aruch, according to the opinion of Rashi, the medieval French Rabbi.
A recent survey of the site described by Professor Barka was conduced by myself and my wife in May 2010. We found the site in great disrepair. The four walls of the brick building still exist as does a small stone wall abutting the southwest wall. In his report Dr Barka writes “there is nothing inherent about the building itself to prove its former function as a synagogue” Our recent survey revealed the existence of one flat object located approximately two-thirds from the bottom of the right doorpost of the only entrance to the structure in the southwest wall. The object is either wood or stone and is oriented vertically as opposed to the stones composing the wall. Directly above the vertical stone is a hole in the wall. See pictures on next page.
We propose the existence of a singular vertical object in the right doorpost of this structure, attributed by Hartog and Arbell to be a 18th century Sephardic synagogue, was the location of this Sephardic synagogue’s mezuzah. The orientation and location of this object as a mounting for a mezuzah is consistent with Sephardic traditions. The hole may have been placed in the wall to hold the mounting or the scroll on the flat surface. We feel this artifact may be the finding which leads to proving that this building did function as a synagogue whether it was built as one or was used as one. Further archeological studies are needed.
Entrance and Potential Courtyard
As noted by Professor Barka and confirmed by my visit the only entrance to the structure is located in the southwestern wall. The southeastern and northwestern walls have only window openings. If the heikha, the Torah cabinet, was placed in the eastern corner, prayer could be conducted while facing east as is the tradition of all Jews. The small wall abutting the southwestern wall, the entrance, could well be the remnant of a courtyard as seen in other Caribbean synagogues such as found on St Eustatius and Curacao.
APPARENTLY FALSE CLAIMS REGARDING THE GUAVABERRY
In 1982 a sign proclaiming that “this building was built from local cedars in the early 1800s on the site of a 300 year old Jewish synagogue” was evident at the site of the West Indian Tavern (currently the Guavaberry Emporium). Mordechai Arbell in his book “The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean” and repeated in a recent personal emails has written – “I have visited St Maarten. and was in a large coffee shop, at the end of the shopping street. The shop owner who knew about my research moved several planks from the floor and I saw remnants of a building, and bases of two to three columns“. The West Indian Tavern (Guavaberry Emporium) is located at the end of a shopping street (Front Street in Phillipsburg) and from what I and my wife can remember from our first trip in 1982 this tavern could have been considered a coffee shop. It is very likely that Arbell was at the West Indian Tavern when he was shown the remains of the missing St Maarten “Synagogue”.
Harry Ezratty in his book “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean” has supported this claim when he wrote “Before it was razed about a decade ago a remaining wall by the old and now defunct West Indian Tavern was known by everyone to be part of the short lived synagogue which existed on that site. I saw it on many occasions“. He has repeated this claim in personal emails with me.
Unfortunately these claims are not substantiated by Stephen Thompson, the owner of the West Indian Tavern since 1971 and now the Guavaberry Emporium.
The existence and location of an alley known as “Jewish Cemetery Alley” is problematic. Professor Barka writes “At the west end of backstreet the Jews acquired a plot of land for a cemetery” and references Johan Hartog’s book “History of Sint Maarten and St Martin” who on page 118 names the alley on the west end of town as “Jewish Cemetery Alley.” He further claims that the alley was in existence as late as 1977. Others including Harry Ezratty (on page 143 of “200 Years in the Jewish Caribbean “) and David deRobles, in newspaper interviews, suggest that “Jewish Cemetery Ally is on the east end of Phillipsburg at the site of the Guavaberry.
After discussions with Stephen Thompson and comparing photos of the building taken in 1982 and 2009 it is obvious that what was thought to be an alley was actually part of the West Indian Tavern and subsequently cleared by Mr. Thompson in 1985. If “Jewish Cemetery Alley” existed it must be on the west end of town as per Hartog and Barka.
The request to the Parnassim in Amsterdam in 1783 for recognition and the Pereira family history provides documentary evidence for the existence of a Jewish Community in St Maarten. The presence of this community (rather temporary or not ) would be consistent with the history of the Jews on St Eustatius who were forced to relocate after the British attack by Rodney in 1781. The location on the East end of the Backstreet, on the south side by Teenstra in 1828 and by Hartog in 1977 is consistent with folklore that places a Synagogue at the site near the Guavabeery Emporium (previously known as the West Indian Tavern). A recent survey of this site by Norman Barka reveals a vacant lot and alley which contain archeologic remnants of an 18th century building. Recent finding of a flat surface object in the doorway which might have served as a mounting for a mezuzah gives credence to the theory that this building, while not necessarily built to be a synagogue, may have served the 18th century Sephardic Jewish congregation of Sint Maarten as a house of worship.
Archives of the Amsterdam Jewish Community
Teenstra, Marten Douwes De Nederlandsch West-Indische Eilanden 1836
Barka, Norman Bulletin of the Sint Maarten Historical Foundation entitled Synagogue, 1993
Hartog, Johan History of Sint Maarten and Saint Martin, Sint Maarten Jaycees 1981 Pages 118-119
Arbell, Mordechai The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean
Emmanuel, Issac and Suzanne History of the Jews of the Netheland Antilles American Jewish Archives 1970 Pages 528
Ezratty, Harry 500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean
Natural disasters: History we continue to live, The Daily Herald, November 19,2011
Stephen Thompson, Owner of Guavaberry Emporium May, 2010
Jay Haviser PhD, Director of SIMARC May, 2010