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Jewish Journal

Curacao shul offers venue with Caribbean flavor

by Buzzy Gordon

March 13, 2008 | 6:00 pm


Trailer for Jewish Curacao travelogue DVD


Compared with the millennia of Jewish history, the scant few centuries of Jewish settlement in the Western Hemisphere is like a drop in the ocean those Jews had crossed from Europe. The history of the Jews in the American colonies is even shorter: more than 100 years before the Jews of Newport, R.I., built their synagogue (now the oldest continuously active synagogue in the United States), the Jewish community of the Caribbean island of Curacao had built theirs -- Congregation Mikve Israel, which holds the record as the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

The Jews who settled in Curacao found the religious freedom they craved. Jewish merchants and sailors who worshipped at Mikve Israel spread the religion throughout the West, earning it the title of "Mother Congregation to the New World."

The synagogue complex houses a fascinating museum containing historical documents and artifacts. Yet it is another phenomenon that keeps this venerable place a living legacy: the synagogue's popularity as a venue for destination bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

"We have about 17 [bar/bat mitzvah celebrations] now scheduled into 2010," said Chazan Avery Tracht, spiritual leader of Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, a congregation affiliated with the Reform-Progressive movement. "All of the b'nai mitzvah that we have come from the United States and Canada."

For families who want to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah outside of their home community, resorts like Joshua Tree National Park and foreign locales such as Kaifeng, China, are now competing with Israel to host such Jewish rites of passage. Along with the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Curacao is offering a rich and storied Jewish history and a pastel-colored Dutch colonial synagogue featuring a sand floor as a unique backdrop for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

For more than a century even before Mikve Israel's founding (in 1651), Jews had been living and prospering in the New World, in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. When Portugal's embrace of the Catholic Inquisition led to the expulsion of its own Jews, the Lisbon court nevertheless found it profitable to encourage Jewish merchants to spearhead trading activities from the port cities of northern Brazil.

Still, occasional flare-ups of the Inquisition under Brazil's Portuguese administration led to further migrations of Jews in the New World -- primarily to colonies ruled by the Protestant Dutch, who had proven to be more tolerant of Jewish settlers. The Dutch West Indies island of Curacao, just off the coast of Venezuela, was a convenient place for Jews relocating from Recife, Brazil; some years later, Jews from that same city ended up disembarking from their ship in a harbor considerably farther north: New Amsterdam.

The Jewish community thrived in Curacao, which grew to become one of the wealthiest commercial centers in the New World. The city of Willemstad was a key hub of the triangular trade linking Europe, Africa and America -- meaning, of course, regrettably, that it was a linchpin of the international slave trade. Fortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Jews were never associated with that evil. Quite the contrary: Among emancipated slaves, Jewish employers were the most sought after.

The Jews of Curacao -- who, at one point, constituted 50 percent of the entire European population of the island -- built institutions worthy of the community's standing, including several impressive synagogues and a cemetery notable for its beautiful headstones. As Curacao declined in importance on the world stage, the Jewish community dwindled; but its stunning synagogue, renamed Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, remains a gem of traditional Sephardic architecture.

With its mahogany beams, white sand floor and candelabra chandeliers, the sanctuary is high on the list of tourist attractions appealing to all visitors to downtown Willemstad -- quite a tribute, considering that the beautiful city center as a whole has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Three bat mitzvah celebrations (one a double ceremony) are taking place at the synagogue this month alone, Tracht reported.

"Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are essentially the same, although up until now, the age requirement for a girl was 12 and a boy 13. We have just changed that to make both 13," he said.

According to Tracht, Mikve Israel-Emmanuel takes its role as host of these ceremonies very seriously.

"The [bar or bat mitzvah student] must be able to meet the following minimum requirements," reads the rulebook Tracht sends out to families from foreign countries. "Chant the blessings before and after reading from the Torah; chant from the Torah at least the last aliyah as Maftir in Hebrew; chant the blessings in Hebrew before and after haftarah; chant haftarah portion in Hebrew (at least five verses); give a five to 10 minutes d'var Torah on the Torah/haftarah portion."

The congregation requires candidates to pass a screening by the spiritual leader, who then monitors the progress of successful applicants.

Dates are reserved by paying a nonrefundable deposit of one-half of the total $2,200 fee at least six months in advance of the desired Shabbat. Families are expected to arrive in Curacao with enough time to rehearse.

The synagogue does not provide catering, although it will supply on request the names of people who have organized affairs there.

Fortunately, there is a very suitable hotel located in easy walking distance to Mikve Israel-Emmanuel: the Hotel Kura Hulanda is a luxury property that has been lovingly restored in the same Dutch colonial style as the synagogue.

No plans for a bar or bat mitzvah in the family anytime soon? No problem.

"We do weddings, as well," Tracht said.

For more information about Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, visit www.snoa.com

Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.

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