A look inside the historic St. Thomas Synagogue

     Everything in the historic St. Thomas Synagogue building is original, dating back to 1833.
     The benches, the Ark and the bima are all made from mahogany wood that used to flourish on the islands.
     The big chair to the left of the Ark, known as Elijah's chair, is for the circumcision ceremony. It was carried from house to house when the joyous event was called for.
     The Menorah behind the bima is of Spanish origin and dates back to the 11th century.
     The chandeliers are from Europe, probably Holland. The central fixture with nymphs looks French in design and each lamp is made of Baccarat crystal. The peripheral chandeliers have since been electrified but the central ones are still lit by candles on important holidays. Originally all the chandeliers used to be lit with oil.
     The walls are specially designed to be fireproof (because the building was built of bricks and stone rather than wood) and hurricane-proof, as are the windows. They allow for a free passage of air while blunting some of the force of the wind.
      The stones are locally quarried but the bricks came from Europe. The huge sailing ships that arrived from Europe had relatively little to sell here and so filled their hulls with the bricks to be used as ballast. Once the ships arrived in St. Thomas, the bricks were unloaded and used for local building needs while the ships took the locally produced rum and sugar back to Europe.
      The cement that holds the bricks together is a mortar made from sand, limestone and molasses. It is said that in the earlier years, children used to lick the walls of the synagogue to taste the sweet molasses. (However, that sounds like legend because the walls originally were covered with plaster.)
     The four pillars that support the building symbolize the four matriarchs in Judaism - Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. These pillars, like those at the entrance to the building, were handmade in Denmark especially for the synagogue from rounded bricks.
      Another unusual feature of the synagogue is its sand floor.
      Legend tells us that it is symbolic of the desert through which Moses and the children of Israel wandered for 40 years. The more likely explanation has to do with the fact that this was originally a Sephardic Orthodox (they were what they were - there was no name for distinction) community. During the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic Spain persecuted all other religions and forcibly converted the Jews to Catholicism, Jews who opted to practice Judaism - an offense punishable by death - had to do so in secrecy. They met in cellars of their homes and used sand to muffle the sounds of their prayer.
     With time, years of rain and moisture penetration into the walls, coupled with low maintenance of the building, caused some of the plaster to peel off, only to show underneath a beautiful stone wall. In 1973 the congregation arranged to strip the remains of the damaged white plaster and bring to the fore the brick and stone walls of the synagogue.
     More than 25 years later, it was discovered that the plaster on the walls was not only considered the epitome of beauty in 1833 but also served an important function. It acted as a skin on a body, allowing the walls to breathe and dry the absorbed moisture without losing any of the wall.
      Many modern-day solutions were explored to retain the exposed walls, but to no avail - and so the restoration begins.
     In the year of the Bicentennial, 1995-96, a small museum was added to the synagogue, named after the late Johnny Weibel, a member of the congregation.
     The museum demonstrates the history of the congregation and the synagogue and displays some of the artifacts of the Jewish history on the island.