Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, President of the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society, reported to Historic City News on the success of a recent experimental prototype Jewish Tour that included visits and a discussion of eight significant sites around America’s first European City.
The prototype Jewish Tour of St Augustine was purposely limited to 18 Jewish and Christian participants who visited several spots on the grounds of Nombre de Dios and observed the neighboring Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
The idea for the historical tours originated from the study being conducted by the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society based on their hypothesis that at least some of those who established St Augustine 450 years ago were Marranos.
These so-called “Jews in hiding”, were fearful for their lives during the century leading up to the Inquisition in Spain that culminated in the expulsion of the Jews on August 1, 1492. They feigned conversion to Catholicism. Many Marranos took Hispanic surnames.
Some are thought to have accompanied Pedro Menendez de Aviles during the first landing of Spanish settlers on September 8, 1565.
Participants had an opportunity to discuss perceptions of the 200-foot tall cross that is central to the Nombre de Dios Mission. Research has confirmed a tendency of Christians to associate the emotion “Love” with the cross — while Jews often associate the emotion “Fear.”
The only Spanish Mission in Florida, not named for a saint or an Indian tribe, was “Nombre de Dios”. In 1565, we know that the Julian calendar was in use; making the day the landing party came ashore in St Augustine the day after Yom Kippur — the day the High Priest, would enter the Holy of Holies and pronounce the ineffable “Nombre de Dios”, the Name of God.
The tour also examined suspected burial sites behind 1 King Street; what is now A1A Alehouse. “It is quite possible that Marranos, Conversos, Crypto-Jews, New Christians are buried here,” said Shapiro of those who settled the area in the earliest beginnings of the European presence in continental North America.
At the Hilton Garden Inn, once the site of the Monson Motor Lodge, Rabbi Shapiro pointed out that the largest-ever mass arrest of Rabbis in the history of the United States took place here on June 18, 1964. At the time, Shapiro was a teacher in Springfield, New Jersey; at the Religious School of Rabbi Israel Dresner.
Responding to a request from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for Dresner to recruit rabbis to come to St Augustine and take part in the movement to create racial equality, Dresner and 15 other Rabbis were arrested along with Albert Vorspan of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The tour group visited the city’s First Congregation Sons of Israel; the oldest synagogue sanctuary in continuous use in Florida and concluded at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, built by Henry Flagler in 1888, now part of Flagler College.
Shapiro told reporters that after the initial presentation is refined, it would become a regular attraction for visitors of all religions who are interested in learning more about St Augustine’s unique Jewish past.
You can learn more about the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society on their website.
Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News contributed photograph by Jewish Tour of St Augustine