Curacao synagogue a historic treaure
WILLEMSTAD, Curacao — Age, a sand floor and a powerful 150-year-old pipe organ, a gift of the Netherlands government, are what distinguish Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continuously operated synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a major tourist attraction.
With the arrival tonight of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (year 5777 on the Hebrew calendar), it will come alive with worshippers just as it has virtually every Jewish holiday and weekend since 1732.
From where our cruise ship docked last spring, it was a 10-minute walk for my wife and me across a pedestrian bridge and into town.
The stately, lemon-colored, 284-year-old synagogue occupies half a block in the heart of downtown Willemstad, capital of the Netherlands Antilles and its commercial hub. It was built in the early 1700s by mostly Sephardic Jews, who fled 16th- and 17th-century persecution in Europe. More than 2,000 of them found refuge here.
Today they number less than 300 of this Caribbean island’s 155,000 residents, own a couple dozen of the 1,000 or so Curacao businesses and hold no government posts, according to Avery Tracht, the Ohio-born, 63-year-old cantor who has served as the synagogue’s spiritual leader since 2005. He was trained at Hebrew Union College, which has facilities in New York, Cincinnati, Ohio and Jerusalem.
Many young people leave the island to pursue higher education and more diverse financial opportunities in other countries, Tracht explained.
“Curacao has never known any large anti-Semitism, “maybe a single incident here or there, but in general, not really a problem at all,” he added.
Most island residents are Catholic, but you’ll find Protestant, Muslim, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon and Methodist houses of worship here as well.
Because its members helped initiate and finance Jewish congregations in a number of North and South American communities, the Curacao synagogue earned a reputation as “The Mother of Jewish Congregations in the Americas.” The oldest Jewish temple in North America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, a National Historic Site, was born in 1763 out of the generosity of Mikve Israel members.
We lined up with other tourists and paid the $10 admission charge to explore the landmark Curacao synagogue, which is opened to visitors Monday through Friday. On display are museum artifacts and Judaica that include a Torah scroll still in use that was brought to the island by early Jewish settlers displaced by the Spanish Inquisition more than 350 years ago.
Mikve Israel is affiliated with the liberal Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the World Union of Progressive Judaism, Tracht said. His Friday night, Saturday and holiday services are conducted in Hebew and English with Reform prayer books.
A thick layer of sand covers the synagogue’s floor, serving as a symbolic reminder of the exodus of Jews from Egypt and their 40 years of desert wanderings and the 16th-century Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
To muffle the sound of their secret prayer services during the Inquisition period, European Jews often covered their creaking wooden floors with sand.
The structure’s plain interior with coral and white limestone walls, vaulted ceiling, mahogany pews and benches contrasts sharply with its striking exterior façade with blue glass windows.
Four brass, 24-stem chandeliers with Dutch Delft patterns tower amid four pillars. The organ, perched on a loft, is played during services.
The chandeliers are only lit during the sacred annual Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, for weddings and other special occasions because they have to be dismantled, cleaned and replaced before use, we were told, and that can require nearly a half-day’s work.
Some Jewish customs here differ with those in the U.S. — weddings in particular. Instead of crunching a wine glass with his foot, the groom tosses the glass into a wedding tray. A 300-year-old wedding tray is among the artifacts on exhibit.
There’s one other synagogue on the island, the Orthodox Shaarel Tsedek, which has about 100 members.
Shaped like a drumstick and only 35 miles from the coast of Venezuela, Curacao is an autonomous part of the Netherlands ruled by a democratically elected parliament.
Dutch is the official language, but multiracial islanders also speak English, Spanish and Papiamentu, a Creole patois.
In 1997, the city of Willemstad with a natural harbor that attracts 3,000 ships a year, was added to UNESCO’S World Heritage sites.
In recent years, a number of Jewish families from other countries have arranged to have bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and other religious gatherings at the historic synagogue. If interested in learning more about such arrangements, Cantor Tracht said he can be contacted at Rabbi@snoa.com.
Si Liberman is a retired New Jersey newspaper editor.