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  • Writer's pictureJeanne Johansen

A FEW WORDS ON SAINT THOMAS SYNAGOGUE

Friends from the North – particularly Jewish friends – are often surprised that I grew up in a Richmond, Virginia that is home to a large Jewish population. I’ve been told that the tiny Jewish cemetery in Shockoe Slip, one of the oldest parts of downtown Richmond, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country.


From downtown, the synagogues spread west, interspersed with the Catholic churches that tended to spring up beside the dominate Episcopal churches.


So I grew up with Jews all around me. It’s to my lasting shame that I don’t know more about their faith: I played intermural basketball for a Jewish fraternity at UVA; my roommate was Jewish; and I played softball for the Jewish Community Center.


But we never much talked religion. My only understanding of the Old Testament is heavily influenced by the Christian tradition that teaches that the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament, probably not the way Jews themselves see it.


I realize that many Jews blame Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular for centuries of persecution. They certainly have a point.


But I’m perfectly comfortable with Blessed Pope John Paul’s designation of Jews as our elder brothers in faith.


And sometimes elder brothers in persecution.


So, I arrive at Saint Thomas Synagogue in the American Virgin Islands, a perfect place for prayer. I walk up the hill through the heat with Jews from Brooklyn, fresh off the cruise ships.


It is an impossible name – Saint Thomas Synagogue – not because it sounds at first like a Jewish synagogue named for a doubtful Christian disciple (we should remember that Thomas, like Jesus, and the Blessed Mother of God were all Jews).


No, it’s impossible because the Jews who first built the synagogue couldn’t have been there in St. Thomas. At least not legally. Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the year of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, and the Spanish crown forbade Jews from coming to the new world. So Jews in Spain and in New Spain put sand on the floors of their synagogues and kept their voices low so they wouldn’t be found.


Can I relate to that? Well, in 1607 the English crown forbade English Catholics from coming to the colony of Virginia. We have some archeological evidence that they were at Jamestown, but they couldn’t be there openly. I don’t know if they put sand on the floor, but they hid Catholic vessels in the walls of their houses. At the same time, in Ireland, the penal laws forbad the saying of mass in churches, so the people gathered at night around dolmans and said illegal masses.


So, we have some things in common: Searching alone/different together/on the way home.


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