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Why There Is Sand on the Floor of the Synagogue in St. Thomas


CHARLOTTE AMALIE – Jews from Denmark first arrived on the white beaches of what is now St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands — a tiny speck off the coast of Puerto Rico — in the mid-17th century.

These were descendants of a Jewish population that had fled Spain for other parts of Europe during the Inquisition. St. Thomas afforded them a certain religious autonomy that wasn’t always available on the mainland.

In the ensuing centuries, a Jewish community flourished in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie, which now boasts the St. Thomas Synagogue.

According to its listing as a National Historic Landmark, it’s “the second-oldest synagogue … and longest in continuous use now under the American flag.”

Notably the synagogue is one of five in the world that features sand-covered floors. It’s not a tropical affectation — it dates back to the Inquisition-era custom of using sand to muffle forbidden prayer.

And to get your imaginations going, you can read about 18th-century St. Thomas Jewry in Alice Hoffman’s newest novel, “The Marriage of Opposites,” a piece of historical fiction that centers on the (actual) life of Rachel Pizzaro, the mother of groundbreaking Jewish impressionist painter Camille Pissaro.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

1 Comment

  1. Mark A Isaacs
    August 11, 2017 at 5:15 PM — Reply

    Sorry, the Jews did not come from Denmark, many from Curacao.

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