Our Historic Synagogue
WELCOME TO OUR HISTORIC SYNAGOGUE
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas seeks to make the old new and the new sacred. We welcome all who wish to worship, study Torah and serve God’s world with us.
We strive to build a community of faith in which each member can find support, strength, courage and hope, and where together we advance Tikkun Olam, strengthening the world and repairing its breaches.
We embrace our role as stewards of our historic Synagogue and two historic cemeteries and as transmitters of the Jewish legacy on St. Thomas and throughout the Caribbean.
Our Synagogue building — a National Historic Landmark — is the oldest in continuous use under the American flag and the second-oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Though our synagogue was built in 1833, our small but vibrant Congregation was founded in 1796 when small numbers of Jews arrived with the first European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most were descendants of Spanish Jews who had left Spain rather than be forced to convert to Catholicism. They were welcomed in the Ottoman Empires and in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia. A number of Spanish Jews also sought refuge in Portugal, where that privilege cost them a significant sum of money each year. Those Jews were later forced to convert to Catholicism and had to practice Judaism secretly, as some of the Spanish Jews who had converted were also doing. Unfortunately, the Inquisition aimed to find those who took their Christian oaths falsely, often torturing suspected “Judaizers” and burning them at the stake in an auto-da-fe when convicted.
Fleeing from the persecution of the Inquisition, these “secret Jews” re-emerged to live openly as Jews and founded Congregations observing their unique Spanish/Portuguese Jewish rite in Bayonne and Bordeaux, France, in Hamburg, Germany, in Altona, Denmark, in London, England, and the largest in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Now speaking Portuguese or sometimes French, but bearing Spanish names, and involved in trade and navigation, they followed the Dutch and the English and settled on various Caribbean islands and in parts of North and South America. These were the founders of our congregation. Today, their history lives on in our synagogue. For example, Hebrew Congregation is known for having sand on the floor of the synagogue. While legend tells us that it is symbolic of the desert through which Moses and the children of Israel wandered for 40 years, the more likely explanation has to do with the fact that this was originally a Sephardic community. During the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic Spain persecuted all other religions and forcibly converted the Jews to Catholicism, Jews who opted to practice Judaism – an offense punishable by death – had to do so in secrecy. They met in cellars of their homes and used sand to muffle the sounds of their prayer.
Today, Hebrew Congregation is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, but our synagogue still gives homage to our historic, Sephardic roots. In addition to the sand on the floor, our mahogany pews face one another, rather than the bimah. We invite you to visit our synagogue, whether to worship or explore, and see how the rich Jewish history of St. Thomas lives on.
Our Past Rabbis include:
- David Cardoze, 1864-1914
- Moses Sasso, 1914-1966
- Samuel Markowitz, 1966-1967
- Murray Blackman, 1967-1970
- Joseph Karasick, 1970-1971
- Stanley Relkin, 1975-1990
- Stephen Schafer, 1990
- Bradd Boxman, 1990-1996
- Stephen Schafer, 1996-1998
- Jay Heyman, 2000-2002
- Arthur Starr, 2002-2008
- Shimon Moch, 2008-2014
- Ron Herstik, 2014-2015
- Michael E. Harvey, 2015-2017