St. Thomas synagogue is a historic landmark

I used to think that a Caribbean vacation was all sun, fun and relaxation. But on a recent trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I learned that there is so much more.

The synagogue in St. Thomas

On the flight to St. Thomas, an ad from Chabad Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands caught my attention. It read: “Enjoy an elegant Shabbat dinner in a unique and intimate setting, overlooking the sparkling turquoise waters of St. Thomas… Dine on traditional Shabbat delicacies, with flavours of the Caribbean woven throughout the menu, complemented by a selection of kosher wines”.

Even though I was to leave St. Thomas on Friday afternoon and would miss Shabbat dinner, I felt compelled to learn more about the history and community of Jews on the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).

The U.S. Virgin Islands, part of the Lesser Antilles near Puerto Rico, comprise 50 islands. The three main islands – St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas – share a fascinating history, unsurpassed tropical beauty and a rich living culture.

Jews first came to the Caribbean around 1654, fleeing Spanish and Portuguese religious intolerance. In 1655, Jewish merchants settled in USVI, then called the Danish West Indies and ruled by Denmark, where Jews and Catholics were granted religious freedom. With only nine families as members, the first synagogue was built in St. Thomas in 1796. The present synagogue, built in 1833, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the U.S. flag.

The St. Thomas Synagogue, or Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, is located in charming Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city of USVI. Built in the Sephardi style, the synagogue was declared a national historic landmark in 1997. I was amazed by the light airy atmosphere of the sanctuary with its vaulted ceilings and white sand floor, reminiscent of the Marranos or “secret Jews,” who practised Judaism in cellars and used sand to muffle the sounds of prayer. And the seven-branch menorah dating back to the 11th century, lamps made of Baccarat crystal, and pews and Ark made of local mahogany are simply gorgeous.

According to the Chabad Lubavitch’s Rabbi Asher Federman, there are approximately 800 Jews living in USVI year-round and about 1,000 Jews own time-shares and winter homes. The St. Thomas congregation and Chabad Lubavitch reach out to Jewish visitors for bnei mitzvahs, weddings, minyans, Shabbat dinners and daily prayers, and provide information on where  to find kosher food.

“This year, at a menorah lighting ceremony at the Westin hotel in St. John, there were 150 Jewish visitors and [locals],” Rabbi Federman said. “We have 30 to 40 people [a mix of locals and tourists] at our Shabbat table every week and community parties with anywhere from 50 to 150 locals joining, depending on the season.”

Mina Orenstein, formerly of London, Ont., and now a longtime St. Thomas resident and a member of the St. Thomas Synagogue, said the shul has a close-knit congregation, which has developed through shared celebrations of Shabbat and Jewish holidays and meeting common challenges such as power outages and storms.

“The quality and inclusiveness of the congregation is not easily found. In 215 years, we have never missed a Shabbat service, even when fewer than 25 families lived on the island,” Orenstein said.

A testament to the strength of the Jewish community in USVI will be the celebration in 2011 of two “heritage” bnei mitzvah – the bnei mitzvah of children whose parents were born and raised on St. Thomas or St. John.

For information on destination weddings and bnei mitzvah, Shabbat dinner and services at St. Thomas Synagogue, contact Rabbi Stephen Moch, [email protected] or 340-774-4312 ­.

For information on minyans, daily prayers, Shabbat dinner and services, contact Rabbi Asher Federman, Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center, at  ­[email protected] or 340-998-8889.

Information on attractions and accommodations in USVI is at