Background: The history of the Jews in Barbados has existed almost continually since 1654, when Sephardic Jews arrived on the island as refugees from what was formerly Dutch Brazil after it was captured by the Portuguese colonisers who were consolidating their hold over Brazil.
The Jewish refugees brought with them expertise in the production and cultivation of sugar cane and coffee, expertise which contributed to the development of Barbados as a major producer of sugar.
Unlike the case in Suriname, very few of the Barbadian Sephardim were plantation owners. Given the small size of Barbados, all the arable land was already occupied by the 1660s. Consequently, Jews settled in Bridgetown as merchants with a smaller community in Speightstown.
Archaeologists in Barbados in 2008 unearthed what may be the oldest Mikveh in the Americas, dating back to 1660. Constructed by the Sephardic Jews who had fled the Dutch-owned island of Recife for Barbados in 1627, the Mikveh is fed by a natural spring and has been preserved in good condition beneath a parking lot outside Bridgetown’s Nidhe Israel Synagogue since the mid-1850s.
The discovery of the Mikveh came as something of a surprise to the island’s small Jewish community. In February 2008 the excavations had begun in search of the rabbi’s house. According to a map by local historian Eustace Shilstone, who in the 1950s documented the layout of the synagogue and adjacent cemetery from his childhood memories, the rabbi’s house was located on the synagogue grounds.
The Mikveh excavation was delayed until by other projects in the Jewish community, including the restoration of the historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue, the clean-up of the cemetery and the construction of Nidhe Israel Museum, which opened in February 2008 and pays tribute to the Jews’ contribution to Barbados.
“This transcends religious affiliation and speaks to the rhythms of world history.”
The rabbi’s house revealed itself soon after the team of students led by Dr Karl Watson, a history professor at the University of the West Indies, started unearthing the layers of debris accumulated over the years. Though there was no documentation of the Mikveh, Watson recalls having an instinctual feeling it was there.
“I was standing on top of a piece of flattened earth alongside the rabbi’s house and I somehow knew that I was standing on the Mikveh,” he recalls. “It was a gut feeling that was reinforced a few days later when the students called to inform me they’d revealed a step. At that point I knew for certain it was the first of a flight of steps leading down to the Mikveh.”
Watson’s instincts were accurate. The steps led to a pool 12 feet deep by four feet wide, with three alcoves that may have accommodated the lamps to illuminate the spring-fed mikveh. The steps are covered with a combination of marble, granite and slate tiles.
Watson believes archaeological evidence points firmly to the mid-1600s as the date of construction of the Mikveh. “We know that from the rubble stone and brick method of construction used to build the mikveh, coupled with the artefacts emerging from it,” he says. “Fragments of ballarmine jugs, a tin glazed earthenware called delft and clay pipe stems we have found are clearly 17th century.”
The Mikveh may have filled with debris after a hurricane that hit Barbados in 1831. Debris found by the archaeological team included large chunks of masonry arches that may have formed a structure over the pool.
“We know that the Mikveh was not exposed to the elements because for modesty, women had to disrobe somewhere before they walked naked down the steps,” he explains. “But we don’t know if the Mikveh was sealed as a result of the reconstruction of the synagogue after that hurricane.”
Under the guidance of Paul Altman, who helped secure funding for the excavation from the Monaco based Tabor family, the Barbados Jewish community have now constructed a building around the Mikveh providing visitors the opportunity to learn about it.
“We want to include a Mikveh Experience as an extension of our new Nidhe Israel museum,” says Altman, who spearheaded and helped fund the restoration of the old synagogue and cemetery. His was also the vision, determination and partial funding behind the museum.
For now, he is stymied as to why his Bajan Jewish forebears constructed a Mikveh so close to their cemetery, which was at the time in use. Watson speculates that space constraints were the main motivation for that proximity.
“When the Sephardim arrived in Barbados nearly all the land was in private hands,” he says. “They had to adjust and make use of what space they had.”
The importance of the Mikveh’s discovery cannot be underestimated, Watson insists. “The Jews of Barbados played such an important role in the development of the North Atlantic system, and their contribution had repercussions throughout the late 17th and 18th centuries,” he explains.
“This is a monumental reminder of the incredible Diaspora of the Sephardic Jews from Spain to Portugal to Amsterdam to North Eastern Brazil, then to Barbados and Curacao. It would be limiting to see this Mikveh just as a Jewish endeavour, or just of interest to Jews at all. It transcends religious affiliation and speaks to the rhythms of world history.”
By Lauren Kramer an award-winning Canadian journalist.
What is a Mikveh?
Mikveh or mikvah (Hebrew: מִקְוֶה / מקווה, Modern mikve, Tiberian miqwe, pl. mikva‘ot, mikvoth, mikvot, or (Yiddish) mikves, lit. “a collection”) is a bath designed for the Jewish rite of purification.
The mikveh is not merely a pool of water; it must be composed of stationary, not flowing, waters derived from a natural source, such as a lake, an ocean, or rain. It is used by both men and women for ritual purification, but it has always held special significance for Jewish women.
Click on any thumbnail image to see a full-sized image with captions.
Video on the The Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Mikveh
Further reading about the restoration of the Nidhe Israel synagogue in Barbados
- Facebook page for Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum
- Jewish Barbados – a record by Evan der Millner who spent several months each year, from 1999 though to 2003, managing and directing the restoration of the Nidhe Israel Jewish cemetery.
- Jewish History of Barbados. The Nidhe Israel Synagogue & Cemetery by A Bajan Tour Girl
- A Barbados Synagogue Is Reborn by Nancy Sharkey of the New York Times
- Nidhe Israel – Bridgetown, Barbados By Rabi Shalom Morris, Rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue in London
- The Barbados Jewish community: A Tale of Jewish survival by Ze’ev Portner of Jewish News
- Who were the ‘Bearded Ones?’ Reclaiming the Jewish past in Barbados By Donald H. Harrison of the San Diego Jewish World
- Bridgetown Jewish Synagogue. One of the Barbados.org’s “Seven Wonders Of Barbados!”
- Jewish Synagogue, Bridgetown, St. Michael by Barbados Pocket Guide
- Book: The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean: The Spanish-Portuguese Jewish Settlements in the Caribbean and the Guianas by Mordehay Arbell
- Nidhe Israel Museum (Jewish Museum)