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Bridgetown Museum Clears a Pathway to the Jewish Past

September 25, 2008 By:
Lauren Kramer, JE Feature
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The historic cemetery Photos by Lauren Kramer

The Jewish community of Barbados celebrated a joyous milestone this year with the opening of the Nidhe Israel Museum, which overlooks the Jewish cemetery and historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown.

The museum documents the contribution made by Jews to the island, one that set off profound ripples throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Barbados is home to the oldest synagogue in the Americas, built in 1654 by Sephardic Jews who were fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition in what was then Dutch-owned Recife. When they arrived on the island, they brought with them invaluable experience from 25 years of working on Brazilian sugar plantations. With their input, Barbados' production technologies exceeded those of any other sugar-producing island, enriching the country considerably.

Nidhe Israel Museum, literally meaning "the scattered of Israel," tells their story, connecting the past with the present. Created by Montreal-based Groupe DES, the interactive museum was built inside what was once the Jewish schoolhouse, overlooking the synagogue and the cemetery that contains the tombstones of the community's founders.

Inside, the floor is laid with large cement slabs that create a visual connection between those buried outside and their stories, related in the museum.

Walk deeper inside the museum and you find yourself standing on glass cases containing relics from Barbados' Jewish ancestors.

"When the cemetery was restored a few years ago, the community found it to be the repository of bits and pieces of daily life in Bridgetown," says Paul Altman, the driving force behind the construction of the museum and one of its major benefactors. Those pieces include pipes, perfume bottles and fragments of dishes.

Intriguing Interactive Touch

It was important to Altman that the Holocaust be present in the minds of those who walked through the museum. He created an arch over the entrance that says "Yizkor."

A far cry from the dusty, glass-encased museums of the recent past where nothing was touchable, at Nidhe Israel Museum interactivity is key. Since the Jews were intimately involved in the spice industry, one wall panel invites visitors to inhale the aroma of various spices and guess which ones they are smelling.

A film introduces Barbados history and the Jews' involvement in local industry, and the literature and pictures on the wall panels are informative and compelling.

The museum was under construction for two years at a cost of $1.5 million, two-thirds of it donated by the Monaco-based Tabor family. It's a new chapter in the island's Jewish history, and visiting the museum is fascinating, especially because the synagogue is a stone's throw away, and the Jewish cemetery, with graves dating back to 1658, is in the immediate vicinity.

There are only 16 Jewish families remaining in Barbados, but, says Altman, Friday night services are always augmented by Jews visiting from the world over. Many express an interest in holding their Jewish celebrations at the historic synagogue, and Altman is already making plans to acquire land alongside the cemetery and build a reception facility that will allow such functions to happen.

In March 2008, the original rabbi's house was unearthed by a team of archaeologists from the University of the West Indies. Alongside it they discovered what just might be the oldest mikveh in the Americas.

For information, log on to: www.barbados.org.

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