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.
Why is there sand on the floor?
The sand on the floor is a remnant of the days of the Marranos, Jews during the Spanish Inquisition who were forced to convert to Christianity but who secretly continued to practice their Judaism. Since practicing Judaism was punishable by death, they met in cellars with sand covering the floor in order to muffle the sounds of their prayers.
How old is the congregation and the Synagogue?
In 1796, the Jews of St. Thomas founded this Congregation. Only nine Jewish families belonged to the Congregation in 1801, but by 1803 it had increased to 22, with arrivals from England, France, and the Caribbean islands of St. Eustatius and Curacao. In 1804 the small Synagogue was destroyed by fire and replaced in 1812. The Congregation grew so large that in 1823 it was dismantled and a larger one erected in the same location on Synagogue Hill. It was named the Congregation of "Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds." The Congregation numbered 64 families when a city-wide fire destroyed the Synagogue in 1831.
The present Synagogue building was built in 1833 with the help from worldwide Jewry and the entire island community. It is the oldest Synagogue in continuous use under the American flag. A religious service has been held every Sabbath since 1833 except September 15, 1995, when Hurricane Marilyn devastated our entire island.
Why do the seats face each other?
The Synagogue was built in the Sephardic style since its original congregants migrated as a result of the Spanish Inquisition. In Sephardic architecture, the seating permits congregants to face one another instead of theater-style as in Ashkenazic and most stateside synagogues. Also in keeping with Sephardic architecture, the bimah, where the Rabbi or reader stands, is opposite the arc in which our six Torahs are housed.
Are we reform, conservative or orthodox?
Today we are a Reform Congregation. The low wooden walls in the Synagogue served as a m'chitzah to separate the women from the men during the early years when the Congregation was Orthodox. Since our Synagogue is the only one on the island, we serve the religious needs of a diverse Jewish population and in the spirit of "k'lal Yisrael" we minister to the entire Jewish community.
Do we hold regular services, celebrate holidays and life-cycle events?
We hold a Shabbat service every Friday night. We are are served by a full-time Rabbi, ordained at the Hebrew Union College in the United States. The religious school meets weekly. Our Sisterhood is active in both the congregation and the community at-large. We observe High Holy Days, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Hanukkah, Tu'Bishvat, Yom HaShoa, Yom HaAtzmaut, Shavuot and other special events. We celebrate weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation. The first Confirmation ceremony in the Western Hemisphere took place on October 14, 1843, right here in this Sanctuary. We also maintain two historic cemeteries.
How many members do we have?
We are a small community of about 110 full-time member units, and 13 sponsors (part-time island residents). Of the full-time residents, about 45 are single members and 65 are families. We also have more than 1,600 Chai members.
What is a Chai member?
A Chai (from the Hebrew word for life as in L'chaim) member is someone who does not live in St. Thomas and wishes to help maintain this historic Synagogue and to help to provide a spiritual home for all those who travel to our shores. In time of need we are here not only for our members but also for travelers. Our sanctuary and our social hall are available for life-cycle ceremonies of non-members.
A vital part of our budget comes fr
om visitors who leave a tzedakah contribution in the box at the entrance door to the Sanctuary, and through visitors becoming Chai members.
Friday Erev Shabbat Service, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday Shabbat Service, 10 a.m., Torah study, 11 a.m.
6-B Crystal Gade
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Click here to visit the St. Thomas Hebrew Congregation web site.
Click here to view the Hebrew Congregation's newsletter for Winter 2005.
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