By Caribbean News Now contributor
NEW YORK, USA -- Now facing extinction, the Sephardic Jewish communities of the Caribbean were once so strong and influential that they helped fuel the success of the American Revolution, and finance the first synagogues in the United States, located in New York City and Rhode Island.
In the 1600s, the West Indies became a place of safety for Sephardic Jews who had fled to Amsterdam after the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. La Nación, as these Jews were called, were fundamental in shaping the early Caribbean economy through their unique knowledge of sugar cane cultivation, agriculture, and an expansive network of trade. Some Jews also joined the pirates controlling the Caribbean seas, and later became influential politicians, plantation landowners, and bankers to the American colonies. While creating financial success for the European powers, the Sephardic Jews managed to prosper and keep their culture, religion, and customs alive, which led to the continuation and support of Judaism throughout the Americas.
Once home to thousands of Sephardic Jews, these historic communities are now facing extinction. Only five synagogues remain and almost half of the original cemeteries and countless ornate gravestones are either falling apart, or have been lost to natural disasters, vandalism, pollution, and the elements of time.
The few historic landmarks still in use are little known gems of the Caribbean and invaluable landmarks in the Jewish history of survival.
Harry Ezratty, author of 500 Years In The Jewish Caribbean, writes: “Having revisited many of these historic sites, it is certain that these unique monuments of the Jewish people are in peril.”
After five years, Wyatt Gallery, an award-winning photographer, has completed the only existing comprehensive collection of fine art documentary photographs of all the oldest Jewish Synagogues and cemeteries in the Western Hemisphere, located in the Caribbean. These images highlight the significant yet little-known legacy of Judaism in the New World.
The result -- Jewish Treasures of The Caribbean -- will take form as a book and traveling exhibition that photographically captures the little-known history of the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean, as seen through the remaining historic sites in Barbados, Curaçao, Jamaica, Nevis, St Croix, St Thomas, St Maarten, St Eustatius, and Suriname.
These Jewish communities date back to the early 1600s and are home to the oldest synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the Western hemisphere. These modern day treasures beautifully exemplify the strength of the Jewish people as well as the surprisingly diverse cultural history of the Caribbean.
“Sadly, these remarkable historic sites are now in peril due to dwindling congregations, vandalism, and natural disasters. After photographing the remnants of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral brought to ruins by the earthquake in Haiti, I realized how important it is to photographically document these magnificent monuments,” Gallery said.
The goals of this book and traveling exhibition are to highlight this important history, to raise awareness of the need for preservation, and to find a way to raise money for this cause.
“The thing is… unless these photographs are published, exhibited, and seen worldwide, they are just good photographs. This exhibition and future book are vital tools to document, highlight, and raise awareness of this important legacy of the first Jews in the Western Hemisphere, before it is too late,” Gallery explained.
“Now is the time to put preservation practices in place so that these historic sites are protected and preserved,” he added.
The good news is that a top-notch publisher wants to publish this book, plus the first exhibition is scheduled to open on March 20 in Houston, Texas. This exhibition has been organized and curated by Joan Morgenstern, notable collector for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
The exhibition takes place during the biennial FotoFest festival and it will be seen by numerous curators, gallerists, photo-editors, publishers, and art dealers who have the ability to bring it worldwide.
After this three-month exhibition in Houston, the show is expected travel to various cities throughout the USA, Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean.
However, funding is needed to pay the production costs of both the traveling exhibition and the published book, with the primary goal to raise vital funding to cover the printing and framing costs of the exhibition, which total $15,000. The secondary goal is to cover the $30,000 cost to publish the book with an acclaimed publisher.
Visit the project’s crowdfunding page
to contribute to the cause.