Synagogue a spiritual respite on St. Thomas

Posted By on April 14, 2014

There's a story behind the sand, as there is for almost every nook of the landmark building nestled into the Caribbean island streetscape known as Synagogue Hill.

When our trio stepped off the cruise ship Norwegian Epic, my sister, brother-in-law, and I had but one site in mind: The St. Thomas synagogue had been a destination for friends and family members before us, and now we were to make the pilgrimage to the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest congregation under the American flag.

Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city on the island, harbors steep streets, and we had heard the trek was hard on weak knees, so reaching our dock-to-door destination along Krystal Gade (Danish for street) was left to a friendly cabdriver.

After taking pictures beside the National Historic Landmark plaque, designated in 1997, we ascended into the rectangular, high-ceilinged sanctuary, where the holy ark along the eastern wall had been opened to reveal a grouping of six Torahs (scrolls of scripture), much like the ones I'd known from temples in American cities, and one unfamiliar silhouette in the center, a decorated wooden cylinder that turned out to be a Moroccan Torah.

A woman wearing a yarmulke and tallis - traditional skullcap and prayer shawl - paused from talking and taking pictures with a family. She told us to check out the museum in the back and she would be with us shortly.

We wandered through the building, constructed in 1833 by the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas - also known as the Congregation of Blessing, Peace, and Loving Deeds. The congregation was founded in 1796 by Sephardic Jews, many of whom had arrived on island shores after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Nine Jewish families belonged to the congregation in 1801, but by 1803 it had swelled with arrivals from other European countries and island colonies. In 1804, the small synagogue was destroyed by fire and replaced in 1812. The congregation continued to grow, and in 1823 a larger building was erected on the current site. A citywide fire destroyed that synagogue in 1831, and the building we were standing in was completed two years later.

The St. Thomas synagogue is constructed of rubble masonry, 41 feet and three bays wide by 46 feet and four bays deep, according to the National Park Service. The sand hides a ceramic-tile floor. The congregation's ongoing restoration and preservation efforts include moving the museum area to an environmentally controlled space and maintaining the island's two centuries-old Jewish cemeteries. The synagogue's gift shop, a separate structure just outside the entrance, is air-conditioned.

On the November day we visited, the main building's windows and doors were wide open to the tropical air.

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Synagogue a spiritual respite on St. Thomas

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