There has been a Jewish presence on the small island of Curacao since the mid-17th century. Today, few Jews remain on the island though there are approximately 200 Jews in the whole of the Netherlands Antilles.
- Early History
- Religious History
- Cultural & Economic History
- World War II
- Present-Day Community
The first Jew to arrive in Curaçao was Samuel Cohen. He served as an interpreter on board the Dutch fleet
under the command of Johan van Walbeeck, which conquered the island
from the Spanish in 1634.
A few years later, in 1651, Joao dYlan brought
10 to 12 Jewish families from the Amsterdam Portuguese community to
Curaçao where they
lived on Plantation De Hoop (The Hope) and worked
the land. Together the Jewish group established the Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, today the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas.
A second group of settlers followed in 1659 under
the patronage of Isaac da Costa and brought with them a gift from the
Amsterdam synagogue: a Torah scroll that is still used today in the
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue.
Most of these settlers were originally from Spain
and Portugal. They had fled the Inquisition and found refuge first in
Holland and Northern Brazil and later in Curaçao.
The settlers originally attempted to work in agriculture,
but their efforts were frustrated by the arid soil. As a result, the
Jews concentrated in the walled city of Willemstad by 1660 and established
trade between Northern Europe and the South American Coast. In 1674
they constructed the first of four synagogues in Willemstad; some Jews
also built plantation houses scattered around the island.
Through the centuries the Jews of Curaçao flourished
in trade, shipping, commerce and banking, and left their mark on practically
all facets of life on the island.
The Jews who arrived in Curaçao centuries ago
were of Sephardic descent
and followed traditional religious rituals and customs. As early as
1651 a synagogue started
on the island to enable the Jewish inhabitants to continue practicing
their religion, both on the island and abroad. The founders of this
community were so successful that they sent money to help start other
Sephardi communities in South America, and Newport, Rhode Island.
Years of living in fear of persecution and migrating
in search of a new home undoubtedly had its effects on the customs and
rituals which the newly formed Congregation Mikvé Israel developed
when it was built in 1732. Those who started the congregation included
those fleeing the Spanish
Inquisition and merchants seeking their fortunes.
Temple Emanuel, whose
founders broke-off from Mikve Israel community in 1864.
In the middle of the nineteenth century these
rituals were questioned by a faction in the
community that wanted to introduce liberal
and more modern rituals. In 1864, a third
of the Jewish population started its own congregation
which adhered to the philosophy of the Reform
Jewish Movement, which was making a great
impact on the Jewish community in the United
Stated and Germany. They built the magnificent
Temple Emanuel, and consecrated their own
cemetery at Berg Altena. Exactly 100 years
later the congregations united and formed
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel. The merger synagogue
is the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere
that has continued to hold services on Shabbat and holidays.
The United Congregation chose to follow the
rituals of the Reconstructionist Federation of America in order to preserve
some of the historical and traditional customs
of both Congregations.
The Jewish Historical Cultural
Museum is inside the Mikvè Israel synagogue.
Different religious objects from the early
days on the island are on display there, including
a set of circumcision chairs, a Passover table
ready for the Seder, baby-naming and circumcision
clothes, spice boxes, candlesticks, Torah
covers, and remains from a 1728 mikvah. The
community had a special black talit for the
rabbi on Tisha
Be'Av, and black shoes and a black yad for the person reading from Lamentations.
Another unique custom from the Caribbean community
is the practice of throwing the wine glass
at a platter at the wedding ceremony, thereby
leaving a permanent mark on the platter.
In the first graveyard at
Curaçao a gourd with an egg sits in
front of the tomb. According to Caribbean
tradition the custom shows that the larger
community wants to include Jewish prayers
in the cemetary.
In 2000, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel
adapted its rituals once again, becoming egalitarian
in religious services. This decision generated
much controversy, and, as in 1864, the community
is gradually becoming more polarized.
Today, Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel
claims to own 18 Torah scrolls over 300 years
old. A few may have been brought by the same
men who fled the Inquisition in the late 1400s
and founded the community in Curaçao.
Cultural & Economic History
By the end of the eighteenth century the Jews constituted
more than half of the white population in Curaçao. While their
principal language had been Portuguese, many Jews spoke Papiamentu amongst
themselves, which enriched the native language of the island with Portuguese
and Hebrew words.
At the turn of the nineteenth
century, the Jews of Curaçao became
involved with Simon Bolivar and his fight
for the independence of Venezuela and Colombia
from their Spanish colonizers. Two Jewish
men from Curaçao distinguished themselves
in Simon Bolivars army, while another
supplied moral and material support to Bolivar,
as well as refuge for him and his family.
Even today the Senior Curaçao
liqueur is still manufactured by a Jewish
family, as are many of the other main businesses
on the island, like Maduro and Curiel's Bank
and Gomez Enterprises.
The Jews of Curaçao
also left their mark on the architecture of
the island. The two synagogues which were
established (and still stand) in town are
prime examples of the monumental Jewish buildings.
Many of the buildings in Willemstad were built
by Jewish businessmen, as were several of
the monumental mansions in Scharloo and Pen.
These buildings testify to the elaborate lifestyle
of the Jews at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Jewish families built homes here so they
could easily sail to town. Later the Jews
moved to the suburbs where they continue to
be innovative in architecture.
Throughout their history
in Curacao, Jews have been involved in practically
all facets of life, from pioneering efforts
in commerce, industry and tourism, to activity
in social causes, community service, politics,
academics and the arts.
Today, tourists can visit Curacao's Jewish Cultural Historical Musuem which is connected to the Mikve Israel-Emanuel synagogue. The museum features such religious artifacts as centuries-old circumcision chairs, a Passover table, remains from a 1729 mikveh, as well as the 18 Torahs from the synagogue.
The agriculture practiced by the first Jewish settlers
in the seventeenth century was not an economically viable activity,
and soon the Jews of Curaçao pursued opportunity in trade. The
Spanish colonizers were not providing well for their territories on
the South American coast, and the Jews started a continuous trade between
the region and the European continent. Soon thereafter, Jews opened
up shops in Willemstad where they traded the goods from both continents.
In this underdeveloped region, the Jewish community managed to excel
with their knowledge of international trade, shipping and maritime insurance,
and transportation. Their family and ethnic connections with Jewish
businessmen, financiers and industrialists in the world centers of the
time, such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, Bordeaux, Lisbon, Madrid and
New York, allowed them to capture most of the trade in the Caribbean.
It should be noted, however, that very few Curaçao Jews were
involved with the slave trade which was in essence the domain of the
Shipping became a mostly Jewish domain, as did insurance
and insurance-brokering. During the first half of the nineteenth century,
several Jewish firms were incorporated, providing a combination of commercial,
maritime, industrial and financial services internationally. Three commercial
banking institutions evolved out of these early commercial firms.
Today, Jewish firms and commercial shops continue
to be forerunners in the islands economy, though the number of
Jewish commercial entities has diminished over the years.
World War II
On May 10, 1940, responding to the news of the German
invasion of the Netherlands, the authorities in Curaçao acted
in a quick, quiet and organized manner. All German ships were confiscated,
and the crews, totaling almost 500 men, were taken prisoner and sent
to an internment camp in Bonaire till after the war. Others considered
enemies of the state based on nationality were also deported to Bonaire,
including several German and Austrian Jews.
After the war, a monument was erected to commemorate
the Antilleans who gave their lives for the war efforts, both locally
and abroad. A plaque lists 162 names, amongst them George Maduro. As
a reserve-officer in the Dutch army, Maduro fought heroically during
the war in the Netherlands. After the Dutch capitulated, he joined the
resistance to help downed Allied pilots to escape via Spain. He was
finally arrested by the Germans and perished in February 1945 in Dachau.
Madurodam in The Hague, a city park with miniatures of Hollands
landmarks, was built in his memory.
While the history of Jews in
Curacao is one of prosperity and expansion, the community is at present
in a far-less comfortable situation. Fewer than 350 Jews remain on the
island today, out of an overall population of 125,000. The steady decrease
in population is attributable to the flight of the youth, who usually
leave the island to attend university, and rarely return. As a result
of the plummeting demographics, the community has trouble attracting
rabbis, procuring kosher food, and keeping people excited about Jewish
Nonetheless, the community still maintains one of the
most historic synagogues in the world. The first synagogue built in
Willemstad in 1674 was replaced in 1703 with a much larger one, on the
same site where the "Snoa" synagogue stands today. This new
synagogue quickly grew too small to house the flourishing community
, and a new synagogue was inagurated in 1732. In 1864, the members of
the Mikve Israel congregation who started their own congregation built
the magnificent Temple Emanuel. The now unified congregation uses the
Snoa, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. Its remarkable
architecture, solid mahogany interior, 18th century copper chandeliers,
and sand covered floor have made it one of the most cherished monuments
and the number one tourist attraction in Curaçao.
United Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel in
Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, is the oldest active Jewish congregation
in the Americas. Founded in 1651, the congregation has functioned continuously
for more than 350 years. Today, Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel
continues to follow (western) Sephardic rites; the majority of its members
are descendants of the Sephardic Jews who originally settled on the
The Curaçao Community Hebrew School is run and
managed in conjunction with Congregation Sharei Tsedek, a conservative
Ashkenazi community. The school offers classes for children ages 5 through
The Beth Haim cemetery
In 1659, with the arrival
of the second group of Jewish settlers, cemetery
Beth Haim was consecrated. The oldest tombstone
dates from 1668, making it one of the first
cemeteries in the New World. The cemetery
contains 2500 graves; the tombstones of many
of these have been adorned with beautiful
sculpture representing biblical passages,
often relating to the name of the deceased.
The inscriptions on the stones are in Portuguese,
Hebrew, Spanish, English, Dutch, French as
well as one in Yiddish. Its antiquity, art
and historical heritage makes the cemetery
at Blenheim an extraordinary international
Sadly, many of the graves
have been lost to erosion caused by acid rain
and sulfuric fumes from the nearby refinery.
But some famous Jews are buried among the
anonymous graves. Ribca Spinoza, half-sister
of Baruch Spinoza, died on January 25, 1695.
Jahacob Alvares Carrea, an assistant of Malag-born
Eliau Lopez, the chief rabbi at Curaçao
in 1693, died on June 25, 1714. Many of the
gravesites have both Jewish and non-Jewish
symbols on them. Skulls and crossbones and
hourglasses on the tombstones show the marks
of Iberian Jews and more assimilated Jews
who brought customs of the larger community
to the Caribbean Jewish community.
Another Jewish cemetary built
in 1880 has tombstones with more conservative
designs, although one can easily detect how
artistic designs changed over time. In the
early days lower half-circle tombs were built.
By the 1700s, when the Jews had started becoming
more monetarily successful, the tombstones
were more elaborate and made from marble or
other high-quality material.
Cultural Historical Museum is a delightful
museum preserving the most precious religious
and cultural artifacts on the island. Many
pieces in collection are still used today
in the Congregations services and rituals.
Sources: Commemorating 350
Years (Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Curaçao, N.A.)
Moment Magazine, "Jewish
Paradise in the Caribbean?" By Josh Rolnick, (August 2001).
Fein, Judith. "Curacao's Sandy Attraction." Jerusalem Report, (January 13, 2003).
Julie Kay, "Synagogues in the Sand." The Forward (March 2, 2012).