Curacao, the Island That Brought Jews to the Americas
Floating in the turquoise Caribbean just 40 miles north of Venezuela, a paradise of undulating green hills and white sand beaches, Curaçao has long been known as a popular tourist destination. It’s hard to imagine that at one time, this tiny island, so far from the cobblestone streets of Portugal, the canals of Amsterdam and the shtetls of Eastern Europe, had the largest Jewish population in the Americas.
Today there are a few hundred Jews living on the island of 150,000. But in the 18th century, 2,000—more than half of the island’s European population—were Jewish.
It all began in 1634 with Samuel Coheno and the Dutch West India Company.
The first Jew to arrive in Curacao, Coheno (Cohen), an interpreter for the Dutch West India Company, sailed to the island with the fleet that captured Curaçao from Spain. In 1651, 12 Jewish families from the Amsterdam Portuguese community made the six-month journey from Holland to Curaçao, establishing the agricultural community of Mikvé Israel on land granted to them by the Dutch. The synagogue they founded, Congregation Mikvé Israel, still holds services today and is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas.
At the time, the Netherlands was one of the few European nations that allowed Jews to settle in its territories. But the acting governor of Curaçao, Pieter Stuyvesant, did not share his countrymen’s religious tolerance and actively protested Jewish immigration to the island until his superiors overruled him. When, despite Stuyvesant’s objections, the next wave of Jewish settlers arrived from Amsterdam, they brought a gift: a 14th century Torah scroll that is still being read from today.
Josette Capriles Goldish, author of Once Jews: Stories of Caribbean Sephardim, is a descendent of that next wave of early settlers. “My mother’s family, the de Marchenas, came in 1659, given land. They didn’t know how to farm, but they came anyway. The Dutch really wanted to settle Curacao so they offered incentives to settle there.” When the de Marchena family and other settlers realized the climate wouldn’t support farming, they left their plantations for the walled city of Willemstad and established trade between northern Europe and the South American coast. And thus began the flourishing of the Jewish community, building trade, shipping, commerce and banking in Curacao. By the end of the 18th century, the community was the largest, wealthiest and most vibrant of all the Jewish settlements in the New World. Its contributions sustained fledgling Jewish communities in North and South America. To this day, Yom Kippur services at Shearith Israel, a Sephardic synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the oldest congregation in the United States (1654), features a special prayer of gratitude to the Curacao community for help received over two centuries ago. Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, was born in 1763 out of the generosity of Mikvé Israel members.
Today, although the Jewish population of Curaçao is only a fraction of what it once was, signs of a vibrant Jewish past are still present throughout the island. The Maduro & Curiel’s Bank (MCB) started by two Sephardic families, the kosher Curaçao Liqueur company, the historic Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue, wrought iron gates with the Star of David, the inscription Beit Levi in Hebrew letters on a house on Heerenstraat. Even the local hybrid language, Papiamentu, was influenced by Sephardic Portuguese vernacular sprinkled with dozens of words of Hebrew origin.
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue
It’s easy to spot Mikvé Israel-Emanuel (MIE) down a quiet street with its bright yellow exterior, white decorative trim and thick surrounding wall. Occupying a full half block near Willemstad’s shopping district, it is an imposing building that dates to 1732 and remains the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. MIE is a smaller version of its mother synagogue, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. Known as the Snoa (Portuguese for synagogue), it served the Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil.
Today there are less than 200 members of the Snoa. Services are held in English and Hebrew on Friday night, Saturday morning and holidays. On Shabbat, its 150-year-old organ is played by a local from the Adventist church to respect halacha law. Inside, a tiled courtyard leads to a soaring room with imposing brass chandeliers, a mahogany ark and deep-blue stained-glass windows that splash color around the room. But it’s the whitewashed walls and carpet of fine white sand covering the floor that make this sacred space feel utterly Caribbean.
Rene David Levy Maduro is the synagogue’s past president and resident historian. He is also a descendent of a family that arrived on the island in 1674. As Maduro explained, “The sand on the synagogue floor represents the Jews wandering the desert for 40 years and also reminds us of our Portuguese ancestors, who covered the floors with sand to muffle the sounds of prayers and songs. The sand also symbolizes the promise God made to Abraham to multiply his seed ‘as the sands of the seashore.’”
In 1864 there was a shakeup in the Snoa. One-third of Curaçao’s Jewish population left the Orthodox Congregation to establish the new Reformed Congregation Emanuel, a magnificent 19th-century synagogue. But almost 100 years later, after both congregations dwindled, they merged, creating Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, which is affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Its current spiritual leader, Hazzan Avery Tracht, started as a student cantor in Brooklyn, followed by years at a synagogue in Amsterdam. Since 2005 his rich baritone voice has filled the halls of the Snoa in Curaçao.
Across the courtyard, the dimly lit Jewish Cultural Historical Museum holds the community’s collection of antique artifacts, ranging from old prayer books and Torahs to circumcision chairs from the 1700s. At the entrance is a 300-year-old mikvah used by early Jewish settlers. Phyllis Meit, a museum volunteer, is a child of Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the immigration wave of the 20s and 30s. “I grew up here in a close-knit community, and went to Hebrew school twice a week,” Meit says. Her parents came from the same shtetl but only met when they arrived on the island.
Younger Jews are leaving Curaçao to seek opportunities in the U.S. and Europe. Very few return. But with the support of tourists and destination bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings, financial help continues to breathe life into the synagogue. With the arrival of over half a million cruise ship passengers to the island in 2017, organized synagogue tours provide needed revenue. Once an island flourishing from its successful shipping industry, the island has ironically returned to be dependent on ships.
Some of its old traditions—board members wearing top hats and tuxedos with tails on Yom Kippur and lighting the hundreds of candles of the four massive chandeliers that night—continue the magic of this historic synagogue. No wonder Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is Curaçao’s number-one tourist attraction.
“In my time, life in Curaçao was paradise,’’ says Ben Siebald when asked what it was like growing up Jewish on the island. Ben’s father, Moshe, arrived in 1926 from a shtetl on the Polish-Romanian border. As he made money as a klopper or peddler, he sent for his brothers. Others from his shtetl followed, as did Ashkenazi Jews from other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, escaping the pogroms.
By 1932 Ashkenazi Jews established a social center and sports club. After the war, there were 265 families and by 1959 they had their own Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek. In 2006, a new synagogue was finished in the upscale residential area, Mahaai—a modern structure with a magnificent glass domed ceiling. The synagogue continues to follow Ashkenazi Orthodox customs, though some Sephardi Jews attend too.
Now new blood has been infused into the Orthodox community with the arrival of the Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Refoel Silver, his wife, Chani, and their daughter, Chaya. They are not strangers to the Chabad life. Chani’s sister runs a Chabad in Ghana and her family runs four Jewish schools in Paris. “The new generation of Jews are already here,” Rabbi Silver explains. “We must reach out to them, to tourists, to the entire Jewish community of Curaçao, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, the unaffiliated.” Silver’s enthusiasm is infectious as he speaks of plans to expand the synagogue to include tourist housing, a ballroom and various other facilities. Chani has already started a Mommy and Me program, a challah bake-off and other family programs. “We go wherever Jews are, and offer a Jewish infrastructure. Curaçao is a great island, cheaper than all the other islands. We want to reach out to Jewish tourism. The potential here is limitless,” says the rabbi.
Other Jewish sites not to be missed:
Landhuis Chobolobo: Founded 1896 by the Sephardic Senior family, who make the famous kosher liqueur from the peel of the Lahara, a native citrus fruit called the “golden orange of Curaçao.” Its famous blue Curacao cocktail can be tasted at their 19th-century mansion and distillery.
Landhuis Bloemhof: A plantation dating back to 1735 owned by a Sephardic family that has been on the island for 13 generations. It houses a gallery, sculpture garden, library and the studio of the artist May Henriquez.
Beit Chaim Cemetery: The oldest Jewish cemetery in the western hemisphere, consecrated in 1659 with 2,500 graves, including prominent early Jewish settlers. Sadly the fumes of a nearby refinery are eroding the finely carved tombstones.
Beit Chaim Berg Altena Cemetery: The newer cemetery, established in 1864, close to downtown Willemstad. Above-ground monuments, elaborately carved tombstones, some with angels and marble busts of the deceased, reflect the increasing wealth of the Jewish community in the nineteenth century.
Penha Punda: The capital, Willemstad, features beautiful Dutch and Spanish colonial buildings, which have helped earn the island its UNESCO World Heritage status. The focal point of these historical buildings is Penha Punda. Built in 1708 in Curaçao Baroque architecture, it now contains the Penha flagship store, and has been owned by the same Sephardic family since 1865.
Scharloo: A former residential neighborhood lined with colorful, stately homes built by Curaçao’s wealthy Jewish merchants in the 1800s, the district is an architectural delight. It is now offices and government buildings painted in a rainbow of pastels. Don’t miss the Wedding Cake House, a wedding gift to a Jewish bride.