Curacao. A Dutch-ruled island in the southern Caribbean. Palms blowing in the breeze, crystal clear waters sparkling in the sun, tropical drinks of all colors of the rainbow glowing in the hands of eager tourists escaping to the beaches, it doesn’t seem like a place that would be steeped in Jewish history. And yet, that’s just what it is. This island provided refuge to Jews fleeing persecution, and several hundred years later, my people are still here. And here, too, am I to pay homage to them, and to add my story to theirs.
The Mikve Israel synagogue was completed in 1730, though the original building dates back to 1674. Bronze chandeliers, wooden (likely mango wood) pews and rails, and stone pillars with the names of Judaism’s four matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael, and Leah – etched on them in Hebrew greet visitors. In the late morning, I share the two story room (traditionally, women sat on the upper floor, though today it is probably rarely used outside of the organist) with several tourists. We admire the azure stained glass windows and the blue glow they cast over the inside of the building, walking slowly over the sand-covered floors, a feature I have only seen here and the nearly-as-old synagogue on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.
Mikve Israel is the oldest continually-used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and the next door museum tells of the Jewish history both of the site and the island as a whole.
In 1492, the Jews of Spain (the largest population of Jews at the time) were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many sought refuge in Holland, and by 1700, Amsterdam had the largest Jewish population in the world. Others remained in Spain, pretending to convert but practicing Judaism in secret. In 1634, the Netherlands conquered Curacao from Spain. Among the conquering fleet was Samuel Cohen, a Jew who served as an interpreter to the Dutch commander. With their connections to both Holland and Spain, Jews remained active translators in the New World, especially for the Dutch West India Company. And so, when the Company took over Curacao, a group of Jews left Amsterdam to help settle this new possession. In 1651, a dozen Jewish families landed on Curacao, and Jewish presence here has been continuous ever since.
The families planned a synagogue, and established a cemetery (which still exists as Beth Haim, but is so close to Willemstad’s huge refinery complex that most of the tombstones have been rendered illegible at this point), intending to be farmers. In 1659, a Torah scroll arrived with a group of another 70 Jewish settlers. Farming proved difficult on Curacao, so as with many other places, the Jewish community turned to mercantilism, using networks of other Jewish communities to arrange for the trading of commodities, including with groups of underground Jews who had stayed in Spain and were now in Spanish territories.
Throughout the 18th Century, more and more Jews came to Curacao. Much of this migration was of Jews who had remained in Spain, fleeing to Dutch territories for their religious tolerance, which allowed Jews to practice their religion in the open once more. Many became successful, and some buildings in Willemstad’s historic Punda district tell their tale, with dates of construction being given both in the Gregorian calendar and the Jewish calendar. By 1800, it is estimated that nearly half of the island’s 3,000 non-enslaved inhabitants were Jewish. (Yes, this means Jews were almost certainly slave holders here, as slaves outnumbered white residents by about 3-1.)
The community at this point had outgrown Mikve Israel, and the city had outgrown the convenience of a single synagogue in the Punda district. Another synagogue was constructed in Otrobanda, and in 1864, a group broke from the Orthodox traditions and built Temple Emanuel to align with the new Reform movement. (In 1964, Temple Emanuel would merge with Mikve Israel as the populations of both were declining. The Temple Emanuel building was sold and is now a governmental building, while the Mikve Israel building was used for the “new” congregation, which affiliated itself with the Reconstructionist movement, where it remains today.)
Friday night Shabbat services at Mikve Israel are in so many ways like those of any other synagogue. I sit in the second row as the rabbi welcomes young families to a special family night service, and then welcomes visitors and tourists. Perhaps 25 people are in attendance, a solid turnout considering the synagogue has about 120 current members. (There is also an active Orthodox community here in Willemstad.) Prayers are recited in a mixture of Hebrew and English, most being the same melodies I grew up with, although a few have special words or melodies that are specific to the region’s Sephardic (tracing from Spain and North Africa after the original Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and Jews spread to the diaspora) ancestry. I sing along – masked, of course – grateful to add my voice to a community that has existed for hundreds of years. After the service, birthdays for the month are celebrated, with Happy Birthday sung in English, Hebrew, Dutch, Papiamento, Spanish, French, German, and Mandarin, a tribute to the true multi-national culture of both Curacao and the Jewish community here.
As services end with some snacks and drinks, I realize that my presence here isn’t even unusual, but rather just a continuation of millennia of Jewish migration, travel, networking, and finding common community despite cultural and linguistic barriers. I watch the kids play, and smile knowing that this community, and its remarkable story, will continue for at least one more generation.
Thank you to the Curacao Tourist Board for sponsoring my admission to Mikve Israel.
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