The Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation Continues its Support of the Oldest Synagogue in the Caribbean, the Second Oldest Under the American Flag.
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, is the oldest synagogue in the Caribbean, the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, the longest running congregation under the American flag and a cultural gem. An avid supporter of education and historical preservation in the USVI, the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation, continues to be a proud donor to the historical site and the community it serves in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
Constructed in 1833 by the Hebrew Congregation of Blessing, Peace and Loving Deeds, the congregation itself was founded in 1796 by Sephardic Jews, many of whom arrived after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. By 1801, nine Jewish families belonged to the congregation and it quickly grew with arrivals from other European countries and island colonies. In 1804, the small synagogue was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1812. By 1823 a larger synagogue was erected, destroyed again by fire in 1831, and rebuilt two years later.
The synagogue is constructed of rubble masonry and the sand on the floor covers a ceramic-tile paving. Inside the famous sand floors have many meanings: some say that it reminds visitors of the 40 years spent wandering the desert in search of the Holy Land. Others say that the sand commemorates the way Spanish Jews were forced to practice their religion in secret, on soft, silencing floors. In 17th Century Spain, the only way to survive the Inquisition was to convert — or pretend to convert. Spanish Jews would hide mezuzahs (doorpost scrolls) in the feet of statues of the Madonna at the entrance to their homes. They would practice their religion in cellars and muffle the sound by spreading sand on the floors above.
Built in the Sephardic style, with congregants facing each other and the elevated platform or bimah opposite the Ark containing the Torahs, the synagogue contains the original mahogany Ark doors, bimah and pews, in stark contrast to the white-plastered walls. An 18-arm Baccarat central chandelier, brass torcheres, candelabras and sconces provide soft light.
Today there are approximately sixty resident members of the congregation, and of course visiting worshippers from around the world. "The Hebrew Congregation is not only an historical landmark but an essential support to the community of St. Thomas, in terms of educational and cultural programs," Jeffrey Epstein remarked, founder of the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation and which has its base on the island.
Part of the funds from the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation and other organizations will help finance the synagogue's ongoing restoration and preservation of the island's two centuries-old Jewish cemeteries.
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