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Around the Jewish World in Curacao, Dwindling Community Maintains Oldest Synagogue in West

June 9, 2005
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Some people insist that the sand on the floor symbolizes the 40 years the Jewish people spent wandering the Sinai Desert after their expulsion from Egypt. Others say the tradition dates from the Inquisition, when synagogues in Spain and Portugal were covered with sand to muffle the footsteps of Jews worshipping in secret.

Rene Maduro, 65, offers yet another explanation: “God says unto Abraham, ‘I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore.’ Abraham laughs, but 99 years and nine months later, Isaac shows up.”

Regardless of the reason, the sand has helped make Mikve Israel Synagogue the No. 1 tourist attraction in Curacao, the largest and most populous of the five Dutch Caribbean islands that comprise the Netherlands Antilles.

Tourists pay $3 each to enter the synagogue, located in the heart of Willemstad, Curcacao’s colonial capital. Mikve Israel welcomed between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors last year, many of them cruise-ship passengers in port for the day.

“The first thing they ask is why there’s sand on the floor,” said Maduro, past president of the congregation and a noted authority on Curacao’s Jewish history. “If you look at the way this synagogue is set up, it’s like the desert. You’ve got the tabernacle in the middle, where the tablets were kept, and the tribes of Israel around the sides to protect it.”

The sand itself traditionally is imported from Suriname or Guyana, though years ago it was mixed with sand from Israel. Maduro says the sand must come from riverbeds and not the seashore; otherwise its salt content would destroy the synagogue’s expensive mahogany furniture.

According to Maduro, the island’s first Jew was Samuel Coheno, who came to Curacao in 1634 with Admiral Johann van Walbeek, leader of the conquering Dutch fleet.

Mikve Israel was established in 1651 as a Sephardi Portuguese congregation, and the current building was inaugurated in 1732. Services have been held there ever since, making it the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

“Usually, we get 20 or 25 people” for Shabbat services, Maduro said. “But if there’s a ship in port that stays until 11 p.m., we could get up to 100 tourists for Shabbat.”

Mikve Israel employs a full-time American rabbi, Gerald Zelermyer. Services are conducted in English and Hebrew, though “aliyot” to the Torah are done in Portuguese, as is the prayer for Holland’s royal family.

Even more unusual is the Yom Kippur tradition of reading the story of Jonah and the whale not in Hebrew but in Papiamento, the local dialect.

Beside touring the synagogue itself, visitors also usually stop by the adjacent Jewish Museum, run by curator Myrna Moreno. Artifacts include a royal edict issued in 1750 by the Prince of Orange-Nassau, ordering an end to the dispute between Neve Shalom of Otrabanda and Mikve Israel of Punta.

Jews have lived in Curacao for more than 350 years, but the community’s peak seems to have been around 1800, when more than 2,000 Jews lived on the island. Some of them were slaveowners who ran large sugar plantations.

“The Sephardim have been here as long as anybody else, if not longer,” Maduro said. “There’s nothing left of the Indian population, so what’s left are the Sephardim, the white Protestants and the descendants of the slaves. We are so ingrained in this community that even black politicians cannot imagine Curacao without its Jews.”

Established as an Orthodox congregation, Mikve Israel began changing in the 1860s, when community leaders installed a pipe organ to embellish religious services. But certain conditions were imposed: The organ could not be played on Shabbat, the congregation could not employ a Jewish organist and even the boy who pumped the bellows couldn’t be Jewish either.

The congregation gradually relaxed the rules to the point where the organ was eventually played on Shabbat, and even on Yom Kippur.

During World War II, Jews came from Europe and the Dutch government put them in camps in Bonaire, because they didn’t know which of them were real Jews and which could have been spies, Maduro said.

The community got a temporary boost in 1964 with the arrival of 600 or so Cuban Jews fleeing communism.

“Curacao was their back door to get out of Cuba,” recalled Maduro, who was involved in the secret B’nai B’rith operation. “KLM had a once-a-week flight from Havana to Curacao. We arranged for them to get Dutch landing rights, so they stayed here for about six months, depending on how fast they could get visas to continue. They ended up all over the world, but mainly in Venezuela, Colombia and Panama.”

Today, Curacao’s Jewish community is split between two congregations. The one with which Maduro is affiliated, the Sephardic shul, is officially known as United Netherlands-Portuguese Congregation Mikve Israel-Emmanuel. The Ashkenazi shul, Congregation Sha’are Zedek, is a 20-minute drive from downtown Willemstad.

The island’s Jewish population has dwindled to 450, nearly all of them affiliated with one congregation or the other. The two congregations hold separate services, though they celebrate Chanukah, Purim and Israeli Independence Day together.

“Several of our members have left us buildings that produce income, so we get a monthly stipend from that,” said Maduro, who served as president of the congregation for 18 years. “However, this is nowhere near what we need, so we need help from outside.”

Historically, Curacao’s prosperity has rested on its shipping business and the sprawling Shell Oil refinery, which was built in 1916 and refines oil from nearby Venezuela for export to the United States.

Unfortunately, the Jewish cemetery is downwind from the refinery, and the fumes — when mixed with rainfall — have corroded the tombstones to the point where only 100 of the cemetery’s 5,000 or so Hebrew and Portuguese tombstones are still legible.

Among those buried in Curacao’s Jewish cemetery, consecrated in 1658, are the sister of Joseph Touro, a philanthropist who established the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. Also buried there are the sisters of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

It’s unlikely that Curacao’s Jews will ever regain their past glory, with a rich and influential community numbering in the thousands: The birth rate is too low and Jewish children generally are sent abroad to study, and many of them don’t come back.

On the other hand, Maduro — who has a daughter living in Holland and a son in Curacao — said intermarriage won’t wipe out the Jews here.

“Today, even with mixed marriages, both partners come to the synagogue and the children are usually brought up Jewish,” he said. “It’s not much of an issue for us.”

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