Jews first settled in St. Thomas in 17th century
The island of St. Thomas was officially settled in 1665. There is documentary evidence that Jews lived here from that time, having come to the island as shop owners, ship chandlers and brokers, entrepreneurs in sugar, rum and molasses and traders between Europe and the American colonies.
The island got its thrust of Jewish settlers during the American Revolution, in 1781. The British Navy stationed a blockade along the coast, hoping to starve the American Revolutionaries.
However, the Dutch on the island of St. Eustatius, not far from here, had little love for the British and much sympathy for the American Revolutionaries. They were happy to run the blockade for the Americans. They helped them with arms and ammunition.
British Admiral Rodney declared "had it not been for that nest of vipers . . . had it not been for this infamous island, the American rebellion could not possibly have subsisted . . . this rock had done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies."
In an effort to change the course of events, he went in and bombarded the islands. The Jewish merchants fled from Rodney's rage. Many of them sailed to St. Thomas, bringing their families and whatever they could salvage.
St. Thomas was a small settlement that had a tradition of religious tolerance and happily welcomed industrious settlers. It could be said that the arrival of Jews from St. Eustatius made certain the establishment of this synagogue that led to the enrichment of Jewish history in the New World.
In 1796 Jews of St. Thomas founded this congregation and called it "Blessing and Peace." Only nine Jewish families belonged to the congregation in 1801. However, in 1803 it increased to 22, with arrivals from England, France, St. Eustatius and Curacao.
In 1804, that small synagogue was destroyed by fire and replaced by another in 1812. The congregation continued to grow and in 1823 the building was dismantled and a larger one erected and renamed "Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds," the Hebrew name it carries today. This structure was built on Synagogue Hill on the spot where our current synagogue stands.
The congregation numbered 64 families when a citywide fire destroyed its synagogue in 1831. It as rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1833 with help of worldwide Jewry and the entire island community.
The lovely synagogue is still actively used today (1999) with approximately 65 member units and is the only synagogue on the island of St. Thomas.
Since the doors of the synagogue opened in 1883, there has always been a weekly Shabbat service. This congregation, therefore, proudly boasts that it has the oldest synagogue building in continuous use under the American flag.
Our synagogue also holds the distinction of holding the first confirmation ceremony for Jewish youth ever in the Western Hemisphere. The first confirmation took place on October 14, 1843, right in our sanctuary.
In 1850, the congregation numbered between 400 and 500 souls and the King of Denmark sanctioned and approved a constitution for the Khillah (community). This code of law governed the Jewish community, regulated its membership dues and established its voting procedures with great precision.
Jews held offices of trust and honor in St. Thomas. This period of Jewish activity on St. Thomas was significant and can only be equaled by the present years.
By 1942 the numbers of Jews on St. Thomas dwindled to about 50. In the 1950s the growth of the Jewish population mirrored the general population. The census of 1959 showed more than 125 Jews lived on the island. In 1973 the congregation numbered about 80 member units and by 1983 the number has grown to 125. In that year the congregation celebrated the 150th year of its synagogue building.
In 1995/1996 the congregation celebrated its 200th year of existence in St. Thomas. The month of September 1995 was the designated month for the start of the celebrations -- but that was also the month of Hurricane Marilyn, which destroyed much of the island and heavily damaged our social hall, the Lilienfeld House.
The hurricane did not cancel the bicenntenial celebration but it did disrupt the flow of congregational life. However, we have now recovered completely and the congregation is thriving.