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Jewish History in Curaçao

 

 

Early History

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.

The 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.

Religious History

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.

The Snoa - Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue 

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 inaugurated 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 of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, currently affiliated with Reconstructionist Judaism, 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 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 cemetery.

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 Museum 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 an 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.

George Maduro Hy"d

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.

The Jewish Cemeteries

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. This historic cemetery located some twenty minutes from Willemstad.

Bet Haim Cemetery

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 most common designs are depictions of biblical scenes related to the name of the deceased. On the tombs of males named Abraham, the Patriarch is seen contemplating the stars. On the tombs of males named Elijah, the prophet is seen in a fiery chariot carrying him to heaven. Sometimes, the engraving will hint at the cause of death, such as a tree being truncated at its root, symbolizing an untimely death, or a ship on stormy water, indicating the victim perished at sea. Mortality among women in childbirth was frequent. On the tomb of Rachel, wife of Yitzhak Pereira, the father is shown handing over the newborn child to another woman before the dead mother. Approximately one hundred, of the 2,500, 17th and 18th centuries, are still somewhat visible and readable today. Replicas of some of the elaborate tombstones can be seen at the entrance to the Curacao Jewish Museum located adjacent to Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Punda.

Originally laid out in the open country near the first agricultural settlements belonging to the original Sephardic settlers, the cemetery is unfortunately surrounded today by a tremendous oil refinery and its stones are perpetually subjected to the deteriorating and corrosive influence of this refinery's fumes. The last burials held in this cemetery were in the 1950s. 

Amongst the anonymous graves some famous Jews are buried; Ribca Spinoza, the half-sister of Baruch Spinoza, died on January 25, 1695. Jahacob Alvares Carrea, an assistant of Malag-born Eliau Lopez, the chief rabbi of Curaçao in 1693, died on June 25, 1714.

The antiquity, art, and historical heritage make the cemetery at Blenheim an extraordinary international monument.

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 cemetery 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.

 

 

References: Ariel Scheib, Jewish Virtual Library.

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).

 

The Ashkenazi Jews of Curaçao

 

Arrival to Curacao

Ashkenazi Jews began immigrating to Curacao from Eastern Europe during the late 1920s. Like their brethren in the United States, they took up as peddlers before becoming shop owners just as prominent as their Sephardic neighbors. They kept their Jewish identity and formed a close-knit community.

Most of the Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao originate from the former Bessarabia, a border area between Romania and Russia, especially from Novoselitsa and Czernowitz in Bukovina, the main market towns for the surrounding rural areas. A few came from Poland.

From the 1880s onward large numbers of Jews fled Russia, Romania, and other Eastern European countries because of anti-Semitic government policies.

Between 1880 and 1993 about four million Eastern European Jews moved westward, primarily to the United States. The Ashkenazi Jews of Curacao were a later part of this migration. Because the United States had restricted the immigration quotas in 1921, 1925 and 1927, the Ashkenazi Jews aimed for various countries in Latin America.

Very few of the Ashkenazi Jews who ended up in Curacao had ever heard of Curacao. Most of them were on their way to other destinations in Latin America. The ships on which they traveled made Curacao a port of call mostly to tank oil, and they stayed on if they learned that the country of their destination was in political turmoil. Moreover, they understood that there was plenty of opportunity in Curacao. Some left after a while, but those who remained sent for relatives. To be a “Landsman” (from the same area) was of great importance. A newcomer was helped by the group; he was either hired as an employee or he received credit.

During the first years, the group consisted mainly of young men. There were no potential brides on the island. When one of the men had saved enough money to go back and visit relatives, he would sometimes be given the address of another member of the group in order to deliver presents and good wishes to this “Landsman’s” relatives. A few marriages resulted from this. But most of the wives came from Ashkenazi communities in Latin America, such as Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela.

The Ashkenazi Jews who came to Curacao arrived with few economic resources, some were artisans but many had some background in retailing and most – coming from Eastern European border areas – were used to dealing with ethnic groups different than themselves. At first, the Ashkenazi Jews subsisted by buying goods from Sephardic wholesalers and then peddling them throughout the rural areas of Curacao. In the early years, they would carry the goods on their backs, or pay a local boy to carry part of the load and travel on foot for days. Later some transported goods by using carts – first, without a mule, then with a mule. They called themselves knockers (in Dutch kloppers) after the Yiddish word for the knock on the door when they tried to sell their wares or collect money. Finally, they stopped peddling altogether, selling first out of small stores on the back streets and then in lager stores on major streets.

With low taxes and little competition during the first two to three decades of Ashkenazi settlement, they were able to prosper – even during the economic depression of the 1930s and although the Ashkenazi Jews came from humble beginnings and started with very little, their businesses often became very profitable. They stopped relying on their Sephardic wholesaler companions and began to import goods directly. As sellers of goods and employers, Ashkenazi Jews became increasingly visible to the general Curacaoan population.

 

The New Shul

Shaarei Tsedek Congregation

 

Scharloo

In 1932 the Ashkenazi Jews founded a social center (Club Union), and their own sports club. A permanent synagogue did not come until much later, in 1959.

A donation from the community to Israel which is being handed over to the Honorary Consul of Israel of that period, Mr. Cohen Z"L.

It was called ‘Shaarei Tsedek,’ Gates of Righteousness and was located in a villa at Scharloo (Scharlooweg 39-41) near the center of Willemstad, close to Punda. Scharloo was the historic prestigious neighborhood of the Sephardic Jews. Until 1959 services were conducted in different locations (in the 1930s the Ashkenazi Jews rented an upper floor in the former Graham building, next to Cinema Cinelandia. After some years the congregation met at the Penstraat, and then at Bargestraat.). For kosher meat, the congregation hired a Shochet, a ritual slaughterer.

Shaarei Tsedek - Scharlooweg 39-41

Many of the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe came from very traditional homes and from the onset, the new forming congregation maintained a House of Worship and services in the Orthodox manner. A Mechitza, separation between men and women, was part of the interior and orthodox rabbis were hired throughout the years to lead the congregation.

Mahaai

In the mid-1980s the Ashkenazic Congregation sold the synagogue building it had consecrated in 1959. This was because the once prestigious and lucrative area, Scharloo, where it had been located (Scharlooweg 39-41), began to deteriorate and more and more Ashkenazi Jews were moving east from Punda to the newly built suburban areas adjacent to it.

Following this move services were held temporarily in a former private home of one of the members of the congregation located in the residential neighborhood of Mahaai (Lelieweg 1A) and close to most members’ homes.

Shaarei Tsedek - Lelieweg 1A

The New Shul

From the onset, on the community’s agenda was to build a new synagogue in the new residential area of Mahaai. The congregation even purchased the intended piece of property for that purpose but for various reasons this temporary move lasted far more than originally planned.

It was not until June 10, 2006, that the long-awaited dream finally came true. This date and the three years of painstaking, strenuous and challenging work that lead to it, probably mark the most momentous and significant years in the modest history of the Ashkenazic Jewish community since its members stood at the cradle of its inception.

The awakening and rejuvenation of this almost expired craving came about through the vision and unique capacities of the then newly appointed rabbi of Shaarei Tsedek, Ariel Yeshurun who along with his wife Ruhama and small family of one child, moved to Curacao from Israel in September 2000.

The rabbi envisioned and enthusiastically inspired the revival of the project, and through relentless and persistent efforts he meticulously saw it through and orchestrated every stage of the process, making the community’s dream of many years a reality.

Today we proudly present what has been marveled as an architectural masterpiece.

One amazing feature is the huge transparent dome which serves as the entire roof of the sanctuary. The magnificence of the striking clear blue sky is simply awe-inspiring.

Our Contributors

Many of the Ashkenazic Jews who dreamed of erecting a new shul were no longer alive to witness the initiative bear fruit but, nevertheless, their immortal contribution was transmitted to us through their pioneering spirit and perseverance. For if not for that belief and determination, we would not have had the strength to be so optimistic and willing. If not for their careful and loving conservation of our traditions, Jewish continuity would have been at risk. The old-timers, those who were always there for the minyan, those who were ever so ready to participate and promote Jewish causes, are the ones who are the true contributors of the new shul and of keeping alive the desire we had for building a beautiful house of worship.

While many participated financially in this project two families are of noteworthy mention for their outstanding measure of dedication and monetary commitment towards this goal; Herman and Miriam Tauber and Mrs. Janina de Marchena-Katz.

The Taubers have done lots of philanthropic work in both the United States and in Israel and they are well received by many dignitaries in the Israeli government.

Rabbi Yeshurun with Herman and Miriam Tauber

Herman Tauber arrived in Curacao as a young boy of 13 years. He left Poland alone before the war to join his older brother, Leon, who was already on the island at that time. From very humble beginnings they painstakingly built a future which later on became a financial empire. Herman met his wife, Miriam, who was a survivor of the war, in New-York and they continued their future in Curacao where they had their three children Paulette, Irwin, and Suzy.

It was Herman and Miriam’s great benevolence and supreme charitable kindness that enabled us to stride forward and further inspire others to contribute. They stand out as the financial cornerstone of the new synagogue, which has been named in their honor “The Herman and Miriam Tauber Jewish Center.”

Mrs. Janina de Marchena-Katz is a very special woman who has financially committed herself to the project from the very beginning. A survivor of WWII, she struggled with the challenges of life presented after the war. With practically no family left she somehow found the inner strengths to build a new life for herself in Curacao. Here she prospered and became a very capable businesswoman. Today she keeps on being a source of inspiration and generosity in the community. 

Rabbi Emeritus Ariel Yeshurun

Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun was recruited from Israel at the age of 24 and arrived in Curacao with his wife and one child in September 2000. Rabbi Yeshurun is a graduate of the prestigious Chevron Yeshiva - Rabbinical College, in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem and the Beit Amiel Institute for training rabbis for leadership in the Diaspora. He received his Ordination in Jerusalem and holds a Rabbinical Advocate degree from the Israeli Ministry of Justice specializing in marital law.

Rabbi Yeshurun served in the capacity of rabbi for the longest tenure since the establishment of the synagogue in the 1950’s and has been a source of great inspiration to the youth and adults alike. His greatest achievement by far is the building of the new synagogue, which has been an aspiration of the community for many decades, towards which he relentlessly worked and single-handedly raised money for.

Rabbi Yeshurun also was an active member in the local Rotary club where he was been able to reach out, through diverse charitable and humanitarian initiatives, to the general population of Curacao. The rabbi has also been heavily involved with raising money towards noble causes in Israel. During the Second Lebanon War, the rabbi launched a very successful campaign for obtaining emergency medical equipment for Rambam hospital in Haifa as well as for purchasing a bulletproof bus to help transport children safely to school. 

As of September 2011, Rabbi Yeshurun has taken up the position of Rabbi of the Skylake Synagogue in North Miami Beach.

References: ​NWIG, New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Benjamin, Alan F., 2002. Jews of the Dutch Caribbean Exploring ethnic identity on Curacao

Emmanuel, Issac, 1957. Precious Stones of the Jews of Curacao

Emmanuel, Isaac & Suzanne, A. Emmanuel, 1970. History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles

 

Tefilla Times

Shaarei Tsedek is a dynamic, friendly and welcoming

family-oriented Synagogue with cherished traditional values.

Regardless of age, background or level of observance,

people feel comfortable and relaxed at Shaarei Tsedek.

Shabbat Services

(Year-Round)

Friday Evening -Kabbalat Shabbat 7:00 pm 

Shabbat Day - Shacharit 9:00 - 11:30 am followed by a Kiddush. 

Shabbat Afternoon - Class at the Rabbi’s home

 

Daily Minyan

Daily Minyanim depends on the season and the number of tourists visiting the island.

If you have Yahrtzeit, need to say Kaddish or for any other requests, please reach out to Rabbi Refoel Silver: rabbi@jewishcuracao.com or at +59996653355.

 

Shul Info & Location

President: Ivan A. Becher

Mobile: +5999.510.5900

shaareitsedek.shul@gmail.com

Rabbi: Rabbi Refoel Silver

Mobile: +5999.665.3355

Shaarei Tsedek is located in the residential area of Mahaai.

The address is Magdalenaweg 37 (Across Römerschool)

 

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