Hillel schools dot Jewish communal map, but none quite compares to Hillel Academy of Jamaica
October 13, 2012 | Shlomo Kapustin - Correspondent
TORONTO - Sprawled across 12-plus acres in the Kingston suburbs, the top-flight preparatory, or elementary, and high school might confuse many North Americans at first glance. A speedy perusal of the school calendar confirms the name is no accident: school was indeed closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet enrolment this year stands at 756, with a Jewish contingent that barely pushes 5 per cent – all this in a country whose Jewish population numbers 200.
Seekers of Hillel Academy of Jamaica’s provenance, though, will find that it opens a window onto the distinctive modern Jewish history of Jamaica. Kingston’s sand-floor synagogue, home to the Shaare Shalom congregation, is one of four in the islands, but its non-Jewish Jewish school has few parallels in the world.
Hillel was conceived by Rabbi Bernard Hooker, an English import. The proactive Hooker, who led the community from 1965 to 1974, was in some ways rabbi to the wider community, too.
“He was the founder of talk show radio in Jamaica [The Rabbi Speaks],” said long-time community leader Ainsley Henriques, “and led an open rabbinate, so to speak, involved with ecumenical activities.”
Hillel’s first 11 primary-school students filed into class in 1969, and the school grew until a high school was added a decade later. Along the way, classes shifted from the rabbi’s home to a new building on land leased from the government for a nominal fee. Eli Matalon, at the time mayor of Kingston and later the country’s minister of education, and Samuel Henriques joined Hooker in driving the launch of the school, which was never intended as a Jewish school but as a contribution to quality education in the wider community.
For Kingston resident Marilyn Delevante, who has been involved with the school from the start and still sits on its board, the school reflects the Jewish community’s gratitude.
“We have felt obliged to do as much as we can for this country,” said Delevante, “because this country has been very good to us.”
Her brother Anthony Alberga, who moved to Toronto in 1976 amid political and economic uncertainty, elaborated.
“There has never been any antisemitism on the island [after 1831, when the British, who controlled the island, emancipated the island’s Jews] and we have prospered,” said Alberga, who chaired the fundraising committee for the fledgling educational institution and counted his son Guy as one of two Jewish children in its first class.
In 2006, the two co-authored a history of Jamaica’s Jewish community, The Island of One People,” whose title echoes Jamaica’s motto, ‘Out of many, one people.’ Adopted after Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, the phrase reflects the country’s multiracial roots.
“It’s a statement about the Jewish community,” said Delevante of the title, “because we’re very much part of the community.”
Henriques, for example, who in addition to his role with the synagogue has been president of B’nai Brith Jamaica and is the current honourary consul of Israel, also chairs the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, the government body responsible for Jamaica’s heritage, and serves as vice-chair of the Institute of Jamaica, the national cultural agency.
Education has always been a pet charity of Jamaica’s Jewish community – it contributed to new reading rooms at the University of the West Indies in the wake of a 1988 hurricane. The community’s Hillel involvement reflects this connection.
Jewish culture plays a small role in the school’s regular activities. According to Peggy Bleyberg-Shor, director of Hillel, the school’s Jewish heritage is mentioned at assemblies and celebrations such as on Founders’ Day in January. The High Holidays are discussed, though not necessarily as strictly Jewish events.
Bleyberg-Shor, who said she knows of no better school in the islands, acknowledged the unusual identity of the school, though she pointed to Ecuador’s Albert Einstein school as comparable.
While Hooker taught Jewish classes in the school’s early days, any Judaic studies in recent years has been largely confined to Star Club [originally derived from Magen David, or ‘Star of David’], a weekly after-school group focusing on Jewish culture. Margaret Adam, club kahuna since its inception 13 years ago, sees two purposes for the Monday-afternoon gathering.
“The role is to gather the Jewish children for community and learning activities/experiences,” she said. “We also try to lay a foundation for bar/bat mitzvah preparation.”
Some non-Jewish students have attended over the years, as well as Jewish students from other schools. As many as 12 students will join for the hour-plus club, which attracts students from Kindergarten to Grade 6, the last year of elementary school.
“They don't want to come to Star Club anymore [after Grade 6],” said Adam, “but I include them in other activities and services, though not formal classes.”
Star Club classes cover mostly familiar ground – Jewish holidays, Torah readings, lifecycle topics, prayer – and are delivered through varying activities: music, food, games, films, lessons, guest speakers, community-service visits to the Jewish home for the elderly (whose last residents recently died). Adam also leads the junior service on Yom Kippur and ushers the children through the Carol & Chanukah Hour concert in December, which begins with the lighting of a giant menorah.
Adam’s role as the de facto educator for Jamaican Jewry’s next generation came to an end a year ago, with the arrival of the island’s first rabbi in 33 years. Lay leaders – most recently Stephen Henriques, who attended Toronto’s York University as an undergrad –have delivered sermons and performed other roles for the community, and a non-rabbi from Israel invigorated the community in recent years, but these substitutes ultimately didn’t suffice.
“People realized they need a rabbi,” said Delevante. “They’re not stupid, you know…. People haven’t heard of Elie Wiesel.”
Enter Rabbi Dana Kaplan, whose first year in Kingston followed some common rabbi-congregation plotlines – and some less common.
“They’re used to doing things on their own,” said Kaplan, whose last stop was a Reform temple in Georgia. “It’s a learning process of when I can influence.”
Part of this learning process tackled the community’s conversion standards. Decades of intermarriage have produced a phone book that, according to Henriques, lists dozens of Cohens and Levys.
“The community has a very soft spot for people of Jewish ancestry,” said Kaplan.
Among Kaplan’s innovations is his collaboration with Adam on formalizing Jewish education at Hillel.
“Ideally,” he said, “Jewish students would get some Jewish education in school, in school hours, and other kids…potentially there’s room for a course in Jewish ethics for all kids…primarily but not exclusively from a Jewish point of view, without pushing Jewish values on non-Jewish kids.”
At the very least, Kaplan has served as a kind of campus rabbi: blessing assemblies, for example, and trying to preserve the country’s centuries-old Jewish heritage.
The arrival of the country’s first Jews has been lost in the mists of time – though the early 1500s is a possible timeline – but when the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, they found Spanish-Portuguese Jews. The community prospered and Jews embraced public life – the legislature closed for the High Holidays in the mid-1800s, to accommodate the half of its members who kept the faith. By the late 1800s, the island was home to about 2,500 Jews, but emigration and assimilation have decimated the community.
Its history has not been forgotten, though. The Jamaican Tourist Board hopes to tap the worldwide Jewish community as a niche travel market, serving up some synagogue with the country’s more famous surf and sand. And while visitors might note the synagogue and one remaining active cemetery, they could do worse than remember its school, a gift, and symbol of Jamaican-style integration.
Shlomo Kapustin was a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board – at the Spanish Court hotel in Kingston and the Jewel Dunn’s River resort in Ocho Rios.