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Where’s the 2nd Oldest U.S. Synagogue? The Answer May Surprise You

August 28, 2013

Did you know that St. Thomas is home to the second-oldest synagogue under the American flag? Beracha Veshalom Vegimulth Hasidim Synagogue, or St. Thomas Synagogue, was founded in 1796 by Sephardic Jews who had settled in the Caribbean to finance trade between the New World and Europe. 

Fire destroyed the original structure, which was replaced by a larger building in 1833. The current synagogue is the fourth on its site, yet features the benches and Ark from 1833, made from the islands’ once plentiful mahogany, and a Spanish Menorah dating back to the 11th century. The synagogue is lit by European chandeliers made of Baccarat crystal.

The most unique feature of St. Thomas Synagogue is its sand floor (visible in accompanying photo), though the original purpose of the sand is lost to history.  Since 1833, Sabbath religious services have been held there every week, except for September 15, 1995, when Hurricane Marilyn severely damaged the island. Of U.S. synagogues, it has the distinction of being the longest in continuous use.

Though the synagogue is today affiliated with the Reform movement, its former Orthodox roots are evident in the wooden walls that once separated female and male congregants. As it is the only synagogue on the island, it attracts a diverse Jewish community. A small museum on the premises provides information about the history of the synagogue as well as artifacts from generations of island Jewry. 


 

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