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Through the Sands of Time

A History of the Jewish Community of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Judah M. Cohen

Publication Year: 2012

In 1796, the Jews of St. Thomas founded the first Jewish congregation on this Caribbean island. By 1803, new arrivals from England, France, and the neighboring islands of St. Eustatius and Curacao increased the original number from a handful of congregants to twenty-two families. Their small synagogue was destroyed by fires and rebuilt several times. The congregation numbered sixty-four families by the time the present synagogue was erected in 1833. It is by now the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. The congregation was also among the first to receive copies of the new West London Reform liturgy when it came out in 1841 and the first in this hemisphere to hold a Jewish confirmation ceremony, two years later. In addition, the St. Thomas Synagogue has produced its own unique religious literature relating to hurricanes!

While the synagogue has served for over 200 years as a central religious and social gathering place, the Jews of St. Thomas have been highly mobile members of a progressive, cosmopolitan society that at times rivaled any in the world. As an accepted part of the larger community, members were accomplished, model citizens in a highly tolerant Danish colonial society. Jews took positions in government, served as auctioneers, participated in the local Masonic lodges, and represented other countries as consuls in St. Thomas. As traders in a mercantile culture, the Jews contributed to the activity of one of the world's busiest harbors and played a crucial role in St. Thomas's nineteenth-century rise to prominence in the northern Caribbean.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Copyright, Series Page

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Title Page

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pp. ix-xii

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Invitation: Why St. Thomas?

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pp. xiii-xviii

A tour group, huffing and puffing after negotiating a steep hill, appears before the synagogue gate. The visitors’ eyes widen, acclimating to a large stone edifice with white plaster columns, pointed-arch windows, and...

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Introduction: On Writing a Synagogue Narrative

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pp. xix-xxix

In 1953, the pioneering American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus published a pamphlet entitled How to Write the History of an American Jewish Community. Marcus noted in his preface to the work that America’s Jews, buoyed by their country’s rise to superpower status after World War II, were...

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1. Gathering

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pp. 1-17

The island of St. Thomas is a small, mountainous, twenty-eight square mile land mass located just off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It is the second-largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands in terms of area: about a...

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2. Growth: 1796-1831

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pp. 19-42

The end of the eighteenth century produced a great boom in the St. Thomas economy. Starting in 1792, the spare, small city of Charlotte Amalie began to fill considerably, and expanded its borders along the...

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3. Rebuilding: 1831–1833

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pp. 43-50

After the fire, St. Thomas experienced several weeks of hardship. Water, depleted from several area cisterns to fight the fire, again became a precious commodity. With so many houses burnt to the ground, shelter was rare and came at a premium. The smell of smoke no doubt also...

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4. A Battle of Reforms: 1833–1848

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pp. 51-86

The 1830s saw a dramatic divergence of fortune for the two major industries of the Danish West Indies. Sugar production, once a thriving and profitable business, became increasingly unfeasible. Although...

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5. Development: 1848–1867

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pp. 87-111

On July 2 to 3, 1848, eight thousand slaves converged on Frederiksted, a tiny but influential port city on the western end of St. Croix. Having successfully organized a bloodless uprising, the slaves demanded immediate emancipation from the Danish government. Governor General Peter...

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6. The Hebrew Reformed Congregation: 1867-1875

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pp. 112-141

The fourteen men who defected from the St. Thomas Hebrew Congregation on March 14, 1867, averaged just over thirty-one years of age.1 Emanuel Correa Osorio was the youngest at age twenty-five, a soon-to- be store proprietor who was less than a year away from marriage. Jacob...

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7. Changing of the Guard: 1875–1914

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pp. 142-163

With its days of booming trade and relentless growth over, the island of St. Thomas began to lose its gleam as a colonial jewel of the Danish crown. Throttled by the catastrophes of 1867, threatened by new shipping and communications technologies, and troubled by labor issues left...

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8. Struggle: 1914 –1946

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pp. 164-194

On August 15, 1914, the completed Panama Canal finally opened its locks to the world. For St. Thomas, this opening ended forty-four years of anticipation and breath-holding. From Ferdinand de Lesseps’s announcement to build the canal in 1870, the St. Thomas shipping community...

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9. A Revival from America: 1946–1967

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pp. 195-220

In 1946, Pan American World Airways flew its first direct flights between New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The new route, in the wake of celebratory victories in World War II the previous year, marked...

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Epilogue: Sifting through the Sands of Time

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pp. 221-226

In the summer of 1975, my parents decided to go on an adventure. My father, after years of teaching in the Boston area, wanted to join the National Forestry Service; but the agency had placed a freeze on hiring, requiring him to look elsewhere for employment. It was in this spirit that...


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pp. 227


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pp. 273-286


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pp. 287-298

E-ISBN-13: 9781611682977
E-ISBN-10: 1611682975
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584653417

Page Count: 330
Publication Year: 2012