National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

[Photo]
St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

The Synagogue of St. Thomas, called Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasidim (Blessing and Peace and Acts of Piety), built in 1833 in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas Island, is the second oldest and longest in continuous use synagogue in the United States. The congregation, originally Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jews, came to the Caribbean Basin to finance trade between the Europe and the New World. Commonly referred to as the St. Thomas Synagogue, it is located on the southeastern slope of Denmark Hill in one of the older residential areas of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin islands, to the north of the town’s main business district. St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasidim was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 15, 1997 and is also a National Historic Landmark.

The Synagogue was built in 1833 on the same site as first Synagogue erected in 1792. This is the fourth Synagogue to occupy this site. The first and third synagogues along with the surrounding residential area of Denmark Hill were razed by fires that devastated the area in 1804 and 1831. The second synagogue  (1812-23) was torn down and expanded.

Many of the founding members of the congregation came from St. Eustatius, another Caribbean island, where they had been established in business. St. Eustatius was a Dutch colony that supplied war material to the Continental Army. For this role, the colony was sacked by the British and trade destroyed. This lead to a movement of many of the colony Jews to St. Thomas, where they helped found the Congregation along with Jews already settled on the island. The first Reform Confirmation ceremony in the New World was held at this Synagogue, October 14, 1843. 

The Sephardic Jewish Synagogue and Congregation of St. Thomas may trace its roots through some two thousand years of the Hebrew Diaspora, starting with the destruction of the Jewish nation and the Great Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the first century A.D. Some of these displaced Hebrew peoples ended up in the Iberian peninsula, where over some 1500 years under Roman, Visagothic, Muslim, and Christian rulers they worshiped in their synagogues, attended to their businesses, and raised their families according to religious tenets that over time evolved and came to identify them as Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jewish peoples.

The Christian kingdoms sought to retake the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic kingdoms that had established themselves there in the early Middle Ages. Centuries of fighting ensued. On March 31, 1492, three months after the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, which ended the Reconquista, the king and queen of a united Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, issued a decree for the expulsion of all unconverted Jews from their realm.

Under the Spanish expulsion decree, the prohibition on Judaism was rigorously enforced in Castile, Aragon, the Baleric Islands, Sicily, and Sardinia, but appears to have been less so in Spanish overseas territories such as Oran, in North Africa, Naples, Milan, the Spanish Netherlands, and the New World which provided refuge for the displaced converses. In a remarkable sense of historical irony, the very persecution and forced emigration inflicted on the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese Jews and converses, became in the long run their source of strength that would help to keep their faith alive and cause their religion to prosper and spread throughout the world. Although there had been a Sephardic elite that served as counselors and financial administrators to the Christian and Moslem rulers of the Iberian Peninsula, the majority of the Jewish people made their living as small traders, farmers, shopkeepers, and moneylenders.

[photo]St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

Throughout the sixteenth century Sephardic Jews in the Spanish Netherlands financed trade in northern European goods, such as iron, wood, grain, and cloth, for southern European and colonial goods, such as wool, rock salt, sugar, spices, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa beans. This trade was founded on trading connections with converses, often family members, still residing in Spain and Portugal and the overseas possessions in the New World, Africa, and the Far East.

Many of the Sephardic Jews settled in Antwerp, but by the 1570s many left for Amsterdam to avoid the religious warfare between the Catholic Spanish crown and the Dutch Lutheran rebels, in the southern portion of the Spanish Netherlands. However, an additional incentive for Jewish emigration was the issuance of the Union of Utrecht (1579), the founding constitutional document of the Dutch republic, which guaranteed that no one would be investigated or prosecuted on the basis of their religion. The Sephardic Jews were allowed by the Dutch government to build their first synagogue in 1597, and in 1657 all resident Jews were recognized as Dutch nationals, although they did not receive full citizenship rights until 1796.

As the Sephardic Jews managed most of the trade in New World products that passed through Holland via the Iberian ports, it was natural that when the Dutch developed their own overseas empire that Jews would play an important role. Encouraged by the Dutch West India Company, some of Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jews migrated to northern Brazil, then under Dutch control, and took a lead in the sugar industry.

[Photo]
St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

(Click image for bigger picture)

Unfortunately for the Dutch, a Portuguese military expedition retook the Pernambuco region in northern Brazil in 1645. This forced a relocation of Jews with expertise in sugar cultivation and capital, this time to English Barbados. The English, who had settled
Barbados in the 1630s had previously developed good relations with the Dutch. With Sephardic Jewish financing from Holland, Portugal had been supplying nearly all of Europe with sugar. However, within a generation England was able to drive Portugal out of the northern European trade in sugar, from its own plantations on Barbados, thanks to Jewish émigrés from Brazil.

By the 1650s there were Dutch Sephardic communities throughout the Caribbean--on Curacao, in Surinam, and Jamaica, in addition to Barbados. Financing for the Danish Virgin island plantations had come from Dutch Sephardic Jewish capital. A Jewish presence on St. Thomas may be trace back to the last two decades of the 17th century, when the Danish first undertook the colonization of the island. The fourth Governor of the Danish Virgin Islands, Gabriel Milan (1684-86) was from a Jewish family with trading connections in Portugal, the Netherlands, and Hamburg. To curry the favor of the Danish crown, Milan accepted the Lutheran faith in 1682 in order to improve his prospects of being employed by the Danish state. However, even before his appointment, a few Jewish families and individuals from other areas of the West Indies had moved to the Caribbean Danish colony on St. Thomas. The Danish West India Company that settled St. Thomas in 1672 received its charter from King Christian V in March 1671.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Danish colonial records contain references to Jewish merchants involved in trade between Europe, Guinea, and St. Thomas. The records note the Jewish residents of St. Thomas as coming from Brazil, and being Portuguese, which identifies them as Sephardic Jews. The records do not mention the existence of a Jewish congregation and freedom of worship under the Danes was not legalized until the mid-18th century. It would appear the Jews on St. Thomas, at this time, worshiped in their homes. The records that would have pertained to an early Jewish Congregation was most likely lost in the early 19th-century fires that twice destroyed the Synagogue. The lack of records also leaves in doubt the date of the establishment of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Savan.

The real growth of the Jewish population of the Danish West Indies occurred during the late 18th century as a result of the British attack on the Dutch West Indies island of St. Eustatius. This small volcanic island north of St. Kitts was claimed by Holland in the 1630s. In 1740 it became a free port, and for four decades was an important harbor with the transit trade in the Caribbean, a distinction that St. Thomas harbor would achieve in the following century. The island had attracted a large population of industrious traders from Holland and elsewhere, among them manyJews, mostly of Sephardic origin. Here, they traded European goods for horses from the British North American colonies, which were used to power sugar grinding mills in the Caribbean.

[photo]St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

During the American War of Independence, St. Eustatius was a major source of military supplies for the North American colonies. The flow of contraband to the Americans had been a long-standing source of friction between Holland and England. In late December 1780, Great Britain declared war on Holland and ordered Admiral Sir George Rodney to attack St. Eustatius.

On February 3, 1781 the British arrived in Orangestad Harbor with an  overwhelming force of 14 ships of the line, three frigates and some minor ships, as well as 3,000 soldiers. After a brief show of resistance, the Dutch surrendered. The British invasion came as a complete surprise to the Dutch authorities and citizens of St. Eustatius since word of the English declaration of war had not as yet reached the Caribbean. The aim of the English invasion was to wreck the economy of the island and to eliminate St. Eustatius as a transit trading port and supplier of war materiel to the Continental Army. The warehouses were sealed and all shops closed. All property, both public and private, was confiscated.

All together Rodney seized 150 ships, including 60 belonging to Americans, and captured more than 2,000 American merchants and sailors which he sent with their agents to England as prisoners of war. Rodney then turned his attention to the merchants of St. Eustatius. English and Danish merchants were extradited to their homelands. Toward the French the attitude was somewhat more lenient, perhaps because of the presence of a powerful French fleet in the Caribbean. They were shipped to Guadeloupe and Martinique. Worse was the fate of the Jews. All male Jews, one hundred of them, were robbed of all their personal possessions, some were beaten, while 30 more were deported to St. Kitts. The remainder were allowed to witness the public sale of their properties.

After 1781 many of the Jews left the island, seeking refuge in the neutral Danish Virgin islands. The increase in numbers of Sephardic Jews in both St. Croix and St. Thomas resulted in the formation of a congregation in Christiansted  and in 1796 the first Synagogue on St. Thomas with the appellation of "Blessing and Peace," was built.

[Photo]
St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

The synagogue started with a small congregation of nine families that seven years later (1803) had increased to 22 families. The first synagogue was destroyed in the fire of November 1804 that burned large sections of western and central Charlotte Amalie. On March 24, 1814, Denmark became one of the first European nations to enact a royal ordinance for extending full citizenship rights to Jews. By 1812, there was a second synagogue, on the same site, but by 1823 this building was too small to adequately serve the growing congregation. In 1823, it was taken down and replaced by a larger wooden synagogue, on the same site, named "Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds" to accommodate a congregation of 64 families. On New Year’s Eve 1831, a fire started in the Commandant Gade section of Queens Quarter, the central part of Charlotte Amalie. Before it burned itself out New Year’s Day 1832, it had destroyed about 800 buildings, among them the wooden synagogue built in 1823.

The effort to rebuild the St. Thomas Synagogue was met with generous responses in funds and materials, not only from the members of the congregation, but also the non-Jews of St. Thomas, as well from as Jewish congregations from abroad. The present St. Thomas Synagogue designed by an unknown French architect, was built in 1833, and has served the Jewish congregation ever since. The working drawings of the St. Thomas Synagogue are still extant.

By 1833, as the congregation of St. Thomas was celebrating the completion of their new synagogue; most European countries had enfranchised their Jewish populations with full citizenship and civil rights. These changes engendered a schism within Jewish communities between those who desired to maintain their Orthodox traditions and those who wished to reform Jewish ceremonies to accommodate their new citizenship status. The religious debates ultimately saw many synagogues split into Orthodox and Reform groups, which set up separate synagogues. The Jewish congregation on St. Thomas was not isolated from these debates. Indeed, they found themselves in the forefront of the Reform movement with the appointment, in the early 1840s, of Rabbi Carillon to their synagogue. Rabbi Carillon, who appears to have been an advocate of the Reform movement, instituted Confirmation ceremonies for 14-year-old boys and girls of the congregation, which were intended to compliment the traditional coming of age ceremonies, or Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvahf for 13-year-old boys and girls, respectively. The first Confirmation ceremony at the St. Thomas Synagogue, held on October 14, 1843, was the first of its kind ever held in the New World.

The population of the Jewish congregation declined in the later part of the 19th century, and only began growing again after World War II. During the flourishing period of the first half of the 19th century, two people of National and one of International fame belonged to the Synagogue’s congregation. David Levi Yulee, born on St. Thomas June 12, 1810, went to Florida as a young man where he became the chosen territorial delegate to Congress from the Territory of Florida in 1841, and later in 1845 when Florida was admitted to the Union, was elected as a United States Senator to Congress. Jacob Mendes da Costa was also born on St. Thomas on January 7, 1833, and became a noted American physician and writer. His numerous books on medicine and diagnosis were translated into several languages. Finally, the famed Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro was born on St. Thomas July 10, 1830 where he spent his early years. As a teenager he already showed an interest and aptitude for painting and later when he moved to Paris, he dedicated himself to art and he changed his name from Jacob Pizzarro to Camille Pissarro. It was in France his genius was first acknowledged, and he became known as the "Father of Impressionism."

The St. Thomas Synagogue is a rectangular one- story rubble masonry building, 41 feet and three bays wide, by 46 feet and four bays deep. It almost covers the full width of the property (east-west measurement) with the west wall only 10 inches from the retaining wall of the neighboring property, and the east wall standing within a few inches of the retaining wall towards the lower elevation of the property to the east. Behind the Synagogue, on the north side of the property was a former open courtyard, which in recent years has been enclosed with a two story wooden structure. The second floor provides space for a library and office for the rabbi, and the ground floor is an area for exhibits and overflow area for the congregation.

The walls of the Synagogue are constructed of rubble masonry using a mortar of lime, sand, and molasses. The framing of door and window openings is red brick and on the exterior it is faced with calcified sandstone laid in an ashlar pattern. The framing of doors and window openings on the interior are of red and yellow brick. All door and window openings are Gothic arches. The hipped roof is constructed of wood and covered by corrugated metal roofing over wood sheathing. The roof gutters are carried behind a parapet wall on the front and sides of the building.

[photo]St. Thomas Synagogue--Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Hasadim
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Office

The interior of the Synagogue has an west-east orientation in accordance with ritual practices, with the Ark, holding five Torahs, centered against the east wall and the Bimah(or pulpit) against the west wall facing the Ark. To emphasize the east-west orientation of the interior space, the builders and designers of the Synagogue created a square area in the center of the interior defined by four Ionic columns resting on tall pedestals. About halfway up the Ionic columns are two-armed antique brass chandeliers, modernized for electric lights.

The floor of the Synagogue is paved with ceramic tile. In accordance with local Sephardic Jewish tradition, the central floor area and the raised platforms of the congregation are covered with about an inch of sand. Since their construction in the 19th century, the St. Thomas Synagogue and Office have been well maintained by the congregation. In the early 1970s, the gutters and roof were repaired, and most of the chandeliers which once used candles for illumination were electrified. Deteriorated wooden shutters and doors were repaired or replaced in kind. All of the interior wood features, such as the Ark, Bimah, and pews of mahogany are original to the 1833 construction of the Synagogue.

 

Excerpted and edited from St. Thomas Synagogue-Beracha Veshalom Hasadim (Blessing and Peace and Acts of Piety) Vegemiluth, U.S. Virgin Islands SHPO, 8-15.1997

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