History of the Jews in Haiti
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The history of the Jews in Haiti stretches from the beginning of the European settlement until the modern day.
The first Jewish settlement
In 1492, the first Jew to ever set foot in Haiti was Luis de Torres, an interpreter for Christopher Columbus. After Haiti was taken over and colonized by the French in 1633, many Dutch Jews (of whom many were Marrano) emigrated from Brazil in 1634 and became employees of the French sugar plantations and further developed the trade. In 1683, the Jews were expelled from Haiti and all other French colonies, due to the Code Noir (Black Code), which both restricted the activities of free Negroes and forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism. However, despite the Code Noir, a limited number of Jews remained in French trading companies as leading officials, including foreign citizens (Dutch Jews, Danish Jews, and English Jews) or holders of special residence permits (lettres patentes). These Jews tended to specialize in agricultural plantations, with Portuguese Jews from Bordeaux and Bayonne settling mainly in the southern part of Haiti (Jacmel, Jérémie, Léogâne, Les Cayes, Petit-Goâve, and Port-au-Prince) and Curaçaoan Jews settling in the northern part (Cap-Haitien and Saint Louis).
Due to a lack of Jewish community centers, many youth did not grow up with a Jewish education and had to hide their Judaism, as only Catholics were permitted to attend public school. Jews generally preferred to settle on the coastline in port cities, as many were involved in commerce and trade, establishing communities in major industry centers. Recently, archaeologists uncovered an ancient synagogue of Crypto-Jews in the city of Jérémie, the only one found on the island; Jérémie was inhabited by many mixed-race families of Jewish descent. Several Jewish tombstones have also been found in port cities such as Cap-Haïtien and Jacmel. By the end of the 19th century, approximately thirty mostly Sephardi Jewish families had arrived from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt; many Jews from the Middle East felt secure emigrating to Haiti, as a law in France had been passed during this period that gave French citizenship to minorities in the Americas.
In 1915, during the United States occupation of Haiti, roughly 200 Jews lived in Haiti at the time. During the 20 years period of occupation, many Jews left Haiti for the United States and South America. In 1937, Haiti was responsible for saving about 70 Jewish families (an estimated total of up to 300 lives) during the Holocaust (according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), by issuing passports and visas to Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Some were Austrian Jews, Polish Jews, German Jews, and a trickle of Romanian Jew and Czech Jewish descent. Haiti played a small, yet critical role in saving Jewish lives during the darkest chapter in the Jewish story Unfortunately, though, it seems that more Jews were unable to acquire visas to Haiti due to the cost. Professor David Bankier, of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that after 1938, “the cost [of a visa] was outrageous: If you wanted to go to Haiti, you had to pay $5,000.” Haiti at the time, was still unfairly paying reparations on an exorbitant debt with interest fees to France after the Haitian Revolution that could have hindered their efforts to continue issuing these visas for free. There were others apart from this bunch who never came to Haiti at all, but from Germany they were given Haitian passports by the Haitian government that allowed them to flee Germany and into other countries. Grateful to the Haitian government, many of these European Jews stayed in Haiti until the late 1950s in which many Haitian Jews left, so that their children could marry other Jews and not assimilate, while finding better economic opportunities. The 1957 Jewish population of Haiti was about 200. The mid-20th century was a time where a continued departure of Jews from Haiti for the United States and Panama because of the economic conditions and civil violence in the country.
Today, the Jewish community is led by Rabbi Douglas Lapin, a local businessman. The Jewish community is known as the "Consistoire d'Haiti" and has been recognized as the representative of the Jewish community by the Haitian Ministry of Religion (Ministere des Cultes) <Rep. d'Haiti; Ministere des Cultes DG/909 6 fevrier 2017>. Rabbi Lapin has likewise been recognized as the Rabbi in Haiti by the Haitian government<Tribunal de Premiere Instance de Port-au-Prince; Recipisse No. 3710084007-7; 4 Octobre 2017>. The community is very small and mostly consists of UN, NGO, and diplomatic personnel, although there are a small number of Haitian Jewish families. The community does Kosher chicken slaughtering (shkita) and has occasional gatherings for Jewish festivals such as Succos and Purim. There is also an Esrog, Myrtle (Hadasim) and Willow (Aravos) plantation to supply local needs for Succos. The community is working on developing a synagogue and community center. There is a complete library of Jewish liturgical books (seforim), Megillas Esther and Sefer Torah.
The 1960s was a time of wealth and high hopes of large future development for Haiti. At the time met many family Jewish names such as: Alvarez, Cardozo, Cohen, Dreyfus, Goldman, Hakim, Hillel, Khan, Monsanto, Pereira, Salzmann, Silveira, and Weiner, which most had forgotten their ethno-religious backgrounds. Today, less than a hundred Jews remain in Haiti on its 9.5 million inhabitants; however, the Weiners (coffee exporters) and the Salzmanns (refugees from Austria) are still today relevant in trade.
Notable Haitian Jews
- David Ades – political writer for Le Nouvelliste
- Daniel Kedar – businessman; co-founder of Prodev
- Elisabeth Silvera – President of the Fondation Haiti Solidarite (FHS)
- Eric André – actor, comedian and television host
- Gaston Michel – local tourism official
- Gilbert Bigio – businessman billionaire of Syrian descent and Israeli honorary consul in Haiti
- Kenneth Ades – financial service provider
- Luis de Torres – one of the first Jews to settle on Haiti, and also Christopher Columbus's interpreter
- Monique Bigio – shareholder of PromoCapital
- Monique Péan – fine jewelry designer
- Reuven Bigio – founder of FAE (Fondation Appui à l'Education)
- Robin Padberg – CEO of telecommunications company Voila in Haiti
- Rudolph Dana – CEO of Transec SA
- Sol – is a musician of Russian descent
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