VIRGIN ISLANDS

VIRGIN ISLANDS
VIRGIN ISLANDS, archipelago in the West Indies. In the late 20th century there was a total population of over 100,000 in the Virgin Islands, which included about 300 Jews. On any given Sabbath they would be joined by tourists visiting the island. There were also Jews on St. John and other islands but the synagogue was located on St. Thomas. One of the first Jews in the Virgin Islands was Gabriel Milan, whom King Christian of Denmark sent there in 1684 to be governor. The Danes, like the Dutch, who had colonized the islands before them, were liberal toward all religions. Complete freedom of religion was granted to Catholics and Jews on St. Thomas Island in 1685. The story of the St. Thomas community is typical of West Indian Jewry. Its prosperity increased with the rise of sugar plantations and shipping lines, and at its peak the St. Thomas community numbered 400. A house of worship was built in the town of Charlotte Amalie in 1833 to replace an older one destroyed by fire. Called Sephardic Synagogue at St. Thomas, (now known as The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas (or K"K Bracha v'shalom u'gimilut chasadim) it is the only one on the island and is a landmark, being the second oldest synagogue in the United States and its territories, the oldest in continuous use. The cemetery of the St. Thomas Jewish community is filled with Spanish and Portuguese names and was the subject of a study done by the Danish Jewish community: J. Margolinski, 299 Epitaphs from the Jewish Cemetery in St. Thomas, W.I., 18371916 (1957). From this congregation have come two governors of the Virgin Islands: Morris Fidangue de Castro and Ralph Paiewonsky. Two American politicians were from the Virgin Islands: David Levi, who as david yulee became one of Florida's first senators in 1845, and judah p. benjamin , born in St. Croix. The house where camille pissarro was born in 1830 can still be seen in the heart of the commercial center. The Grand Hotel located at Charlotte Amalie's main square was built by Pissarro's father in 1841. (Benjamin Schlesinger) -Synagogue Restoration In 1973 the Sephardi Synagogue of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, had its original plaster on the walls removed after 140 years of service, revealing handsome walls of Danish brick. The synagogue   (with the plaster) was restored in 1999 and received national recognition for its restoration. It became a National Historic Monument in 1997, the year after its bicentennial. Like certain other synagogues in the Caribbean, its marble floor is kept covered with a layer of sand to remember the conversos (secret Jews) of Spain who prayed secretly in their cellars with floors covered with sand to muffle the sound of their prayers. It employs a rabbi, Arthur Starr, who serves the community. (Arthur F. Starr (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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