Friday, July 16, 2010

A Moving Visit to The Jewish Community in Jamaica.

The Caribbean, once a refuge and vibrant center for Jewish life, became, literally, a Jewish graveyard in the end. How did the Rebbe predict what would come? The Avner Institute would like to present a fascinating yechidus with Mr. Marcus Retter in the fall of 1957, after a visit that he made to Jamaica, where he expressed to the Rebbe his dream to recreate the island’s Jewish community. Sadly, the Rebbe would prove him wrong. With special thanks to Chabad of Riverdale.

The Rebbe Archive would like to present a photo of the Rebbe, with special thanks to Rabbi Moshe Goldstein.

Good Shabbos

Mr. Retter relates:

"I was privileged to meet privately with the Rebbe in 1957 and in 1963, at a time when yechidut (private audiences) were rarely granted. The first time, I spent almost two hours with the Rebbe, on the second visit almost an hour.

In the fall of 1957, my appointment was scheduled for ten o'clock in the evening, but it was after 11 p.m. when I was actually admitted. Outside, there were at least a dozen people waiting who had expected my visit with the Rebbe to last no more than ten minutes. But it was not so. In fact, during my stay, the Rebbe received several reminders on the intercom from his secretaries that the "visitor" had overstayed his allotted time, and that people were waiting. The Rebbe responded by saying, "I know, I know, it won't take much longer."

After receiving my note and giving over his blessings for "spiritual and physical health" and success, the Rebbe, who had insisted that I sit down (I always stood when received by Rebbes elsewhere), turned his rich blue eyes towards me, exuding warmth and kindness, the likes of which I had never experienced. The Rebbe then asked whether I would prefer to speak to him in English or in “Mamme loshen (Yiddish).” He smiled when I responded in the latter language.

I felt at ease addressing the Rebbe and said that I had not come with a private request, but rather the need to communicate to him a matter in which he might be interested. He immediately corrected me by saying, "Not communicate, but share information."

After such an encouraging start, I reported to the Rebbe that I had just returned from an important visit to Jamaica, then a British colony in the West Indies, where I had stayed for four weeks and where I had met with several Jewish families, mostly assimilated Sephardim, as well as the rabbi of the Kingston Jewish community. I told the Rebbe that there were 400 Jewish families on the island and a synagogue in Kingston. But, the rabbi, although an Ashkenazi from England, paid no attention to the British Chief Rabbinate, claiming that it had no jurisdiction over a Sephardic community in the Commonwealth, despite its nominal affiliation with the Council of the United Hebrew Congregations of the slowly disintegrating British Empire. I further reported to the Rebbe that there were 30 or 40 Jewish children whose religious education was less than minimal.

The climax of this sad situation was what I saw in the Jewish section of the cemetery in Spanishtown, the former capital of Jamaica and the former center of Jewish life and communal activity. I showed the Rebbe several inscriptions of 300-year-old gravestones which were evidence that there had been vibrant Jewish life in Jamaica. The names Sosa, Setton, and Shalom appeared on a number with the description of the deceased as "Zakein V'Yoshev B'Yeshiva" (elderly and one who studied in depth), manhig (leader) and gaon (great scholar) of the community. The Rebbe knew of all of these Sephardic gaonim who lived in Jamaica centuries ago, and he told me how they had come there.

I told the Rebbe that a community with such a religious background and great history was about to disappear in complete assimilation, and that maybe something could be done. The rabbi in Jamaica had instructed his flock that kashrut was no longer operative because the laws of hygiene rendered it superfluous and that a blood-soaked beefsteak was healthy and nourishing. I had heard all of these statements from the rabbi's own mouth. Of course, there was no mohel in Jamaica, but the Jewish families (most of whom were wealthy) imported one from Panama every so often to perform several brissim on the same day.

The Rebbe told me that he was aware of all these facts, and that he knew the names of the leading Jewish families in Jamaica, but that Jamaica was not a fertile ground and could not be cultivated. Nevertheless, within one month, the Rebbe sent two emissaries there and had kosher meat imported from Miami and a mohel in Panama be available at all times. These emissaries brought over five boys to the United States to study in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn.

During the course of my meeting, I was amazed to learn that the Rebbe had full knowledge of the political and economic conditions in Jamaica. The Rebbe knew all about the internal struggle between Sir Alexander Bustamente and his cousin and political rival Victor Manley. The Rebbe predicted that within a decade or so Jamaica would become an independent republic, "for a while steeped in the law," but soon to adopt the socialist and leftist path that would wreak havoc with the economy. He said that gradually the Jewish population would emigrate to Israel and Latin America, some to England, and that only the tombstones would remain as a monument to the Jewish community that disappeared because there was no influx of vital Judaism from Europe. The Rebbe was right.

Towards the end of the meeting, the Rebbe asked where I had been during the war, and he was particularly interested in hearing about the late Lord Wedgewood, for whom I had worked in the History of Parliament Committee. The Rebbe had firsthand in formation on every minute detail of the Jewish communities in England and predicted that Orthodox Jewish life would flourish there.

In 1963, six years later, when once again I was privileged to be received by the Rebbe, the Rebbe recalled all the details we had "shared," to use his language, in the course of our first meeting. At the time I asked for some personal advice, which the Rebbe gave me. I did exactly as the Rebbe told me. I never regretted it. To this very day, I practice what the Rebbe told me to do.