Jewish Journal

Congregation in the Caribbean

by Jeff Hoyt

Posted on Oct. 3, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Congregation Mikve Isreal-Emmanuel in Curacao.

Congregation Mikve Isreal-Emmanuel in Curacao.

Rabbi wanted in tropical paradise. Unique opportunity to serve a multicultural congregation in the oldest Jewish synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Position offers competitive salary, three-bedroom house, sandy beaches and sandy synagogue floors. Knowledge of Hebrew, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Papiamentu preferred.

Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel could have placed the above "want ad," for a spiritual leader for their 270-year-old synagogue on the Caribbean island of Curacao, which had lacked a rabbi until recently.

A visit to this Netherlands Antilles island reveals a lot about Jewish history, and the future of far-flung Jewish communities throughout the world.

Like many other Caribbean islands, Curacao, located 37 miles north of Venezuela, has beautiful beaches for swimming, coral reefs for snorkeling and diving, and sunny weather for relaxing. What makes it a truly special place to visit is the snoa (synagogue in the local Creole language, Papiamentu).

"The Mikve Israel-Emanuel was founded 270 years ago in 1732," noted Gianna Scheper, who has been involved with the house of worship for over 20 years and whose late husband sat on the synagogue's board. She said that the congregation was founded in 1651 and that the first Torah arrived in 1659, and is still used to this day. "That makes us the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas."

Many of its 350 Sephardic congregants today are the descendants of Marranos who worshipped secretly as the Inquisition took hold in 15th-century Spain and Portugal. "We prefer the term 'Conversos' to 'Marranos,' as that is Spanish slang for 'swine,'" Scheper said.

Numerous buildings in the island's only city, the picturesque capital of Willemstad, boast colorful pastel facades like those in 18th-century Amsterdam, as the island is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Rabbi Aaron Lewis Peller, who served as the congregation's rabbi from 1978 to 1994, remembers the first time he saw the synagogue, which takes up most of a city block: "My initial reaction was, 'Wow.' To walk in and see the sand on the floor, the mahogany tebeh [pulpit] and the mahogany hechal [ark], it's quite impressive.

"Most people feel there are at least three different reasons for the sand on the floor. Some people feel it's supposed to represent the sand of the wilderness of Sinai, when the Jewish people left Egypt and wandered for 40 years. There are some that say it is the sand that is mentioned in the book of Genesis, where God promised to Abraham, 'Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands of the shore, so much it can not be counted.' Some people say the sand on the floor represents that sand, with each grain a Jew."

But the rabbi prefers a third explanation. "During the time of the Inquisition, the Jewish people had various houses that they used for prayers. But they knew that there were always going to be spies of the Inquisition around. So they put sand over the wooden floors, so they wouldn't squeak, so the spies couldn't hear them walking on the floors."

The Jews who settled in Curacao found the religious freedom they craved, then aided its proliferation. Not only does the synagogue in the former Dutch colony form a link to the Sephardic past, but the Jewish merchants and maritime men who worshipped there spread the religion throughout the West, earning it the title of "Mother Congregation to the New World." Through the years, its congregants helped start many synagogues and Jewish communities from South to North America, including the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the oldest synagogue in North America (1763).

Adjoining the synagogue, which is affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, is the Jewish Cultural Museum, which houses among its collection a Torah scroll brought by the first Jewish settlers to the island, believed to be from the time of their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Some of the items in the museum are still used in the synagogue to this day.

Some Jewish customs are different in Curacao, Peller said. "There is a wedding tray in the museum that is over 300 years old. Instead of the groom stepping on the glass at the end of the ceremony, he throws the glass into the wedding tray." No longer in use is the tiny mikvah in the museum's patio that resembles a small rectangular ditch against a brick wall. It's easy to see why many local women preferred to use the sea instead.

No Jewish tour of the island would be complete without a visit to the Beth Haim Cemetery in nearby Blenheim, which dates back to 1659. Of the approximately 5,000 graves there, about half have a monument or marker, many with quite detailed decoration. Some bear a cut flower, symbolizing the death of a child, while some adults' stones show a felled tree. The sepulchral art includes depictions of deathbed scenes, skulls and crossbones, sailing ships, Moses carrying the Ten Commandments and even Christian symbols. Sadly, a large oil refinery was constructed around the cemetery, and the resultant pollution has eroded many of the precious artifacts.

Peller, the current Rabbi of Temple Hesed in Scranton, Pa., had returned to oversee a bar and bat mitzvah. In the absence of a rabbi, a board member normally leads prayers.

In this now-remote outpost of Judaism, the rabbi spoke from the Theba perched in the center of the synagogue surrounded by sand, and used a little Spanish in the service, along with Hebrew and English. The same prayers were said, age-old songs were sung, and spirits were lifted, as they had throughout the ages.

Peller, clearly thrilled to return to the island to help two children make their transition to adulthood, praised the congregation: "You have maintained your heritage. You have maintained your roots. You have faced modernity." The rabbi's words were underscored by a car alarm blaring from the street outside.

The alarm is also sounding on the future of the small congregation, which commemorated their 350th anniversary last year. "Intermarriage is a problem," said Scheper, whose own conversion to Judaism was overseen by Peller. "At the end of the 18th century, of the 400,000-500,000 white people living on the island, 50-60 percent were Jewish. Today, only 0.3 percent of the population is Jewish. But we are the oldest population group living on the island, and also the oldest religion practiced on the island. About 40 children attend the community Hebrew school. There are also about 150 Ashkenazi Jews who attend the Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tzedek.

"We all pull together on every occasion. Perhaps only 10 percent will come to services Friday evening and Saturday mornings, but it is a close-knit community. If something happens to one of us, it happens to all."

The closeness of the community can also work against it. "We grow up as one big happy family, and that's the problem the young people are having," Scheper said, noting that many young people leave.

She also understood why it was hard to convince a rabbi to come to her island. "Young rabbis don't know where Curacao is. They're afraid they'll kill their careers by coming to us, because we're so far away from the conferences and the big urban centers. We are banking on a retired rabbi at the moment."

And the congregation's prayers have been answered. After a lengthy search, retired Rabbi Gerry Zelermyer has signed a three-year contract to lead the congregation, and he went in August. In a unique turnaround, the Rabbi is married to a Curacao Jew, and the two of them are returning to her roots so he can lead the congregation.

"It's a wonderful place, an historic synagogue, and a very special community," Peller said. "You go to a bar mitzvah, batmitzvah, or wedding; you have Latin salsa, you have the Curacao music and then you get horas. It's a tasty mélange. The whole mingling of Judaism within that culture, to me, is just one incredible example of how our people can survive and flourish."

For more information about visiting Curacao, call the Curacao Tourist Board at (800) 3-CURACAO, or visit their Web site at www.curacao-tourism.com . For more information about Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel, visit their Web site at www.snoa.com .

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