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 d’Ylan 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 Bolivar’s 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 Dutch.
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 island’s 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 Holland’s 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 life.
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 island.
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 12.
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 monument.
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.
Curaçao’s Jewish 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 Congregation’s 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).