The Cradle of Judaism in the Americas : 350 years of Jewish Life in Curaçao

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The Cradle of Judaism in the Americas : 350 years of Jewish Life in Curaçao
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Russel-Capriles, Michèle
Jewish Cultural Historical Museum
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Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles


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University of Florida
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1 The Cradle of Judaism in the Americas 350 years of Jewish Life in Curaao It is a little known fact that the people of Curaao, a rather small Caribbean island, played important roles in the success of Allied efforts during the Second World War. After th e War, a monument was erected to commemorate the Antilleans who gave their lives for the War efforts, both locally, at sea and abroad. A plaque lists 162 names, amongst them George Maduro. As a reserve officer in the Dutch army, George fought heroically d uring 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 the camp at Dachau. George Maduro was a descen dant of one of the first Jewish families The first Jew to arrive in Curaao was Samuel Cohen. He served as an interpreter on board the Dutch fleet under the command of Johan van Walbeeck, which conquered the i sland from from the Amsterdam Portuguese community to Curaao and established Congregation Mikv where they tended the land. A second group of settlers followed in 1659 under the patronage of Isaac da Costa and brought with them on loan from the Amsterdam Synagogue: one of our first Torahs, still used today in the Mikv Israel Emanuel Synagogue. These settlers were originally from Spain and Portugal, they had fled the Inquisition and found refuge first in Holland, then in Northern Brazil and later on in Curaao. Agriculture, they soon realized, was not an economically viable a ctivity. The Jews of Curaao recognized 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. They came to live inside the walled city of Willemstad as early as 1660. Soon thereafter, Jews opened up shops in Willemstad where they traded the goods from both continents. The first settlers had consecrated a house of worship on Plantation De Hoop, as well as t he historic Beth Haim cemetery. But when the Jews moved to town they consecrated a first synagogue in town (1674). This original synagogue was replaced three times with larger buildings and in 1703 they built their first synagogue, on the same site where o ur current synagogue stands today. When this house of worship became too small again to house the flourishing Jewish community of Curaao, they tore that one down to construct the current building. The architecture of the new synagogue, which was inaugurat ed in 1732, was Americas and stands proudly in the middle of Punda, in Willemstad, UNESCO World Heritage City. 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 C uraao. In this (then) 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 a nd 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 Curaao Jews were involved with the slave trade, which was in essence the domain of the Dutch. Shipping became a mostly Jewish domain, as did the business of 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


2 commercial firms. Today, Jewish firms and commercial shops continue to be forerunners in ou over the years. At the end of the eighteenth century the Jews constituted more than half of the white population in Curaao; and while their principal language had bee n Portuguese, many Jews spoke Papiamentu amongst themselves. Without a doubt, the Jewish community in Curaao enriched Papiamentu, the native language of the island, with Portuguese and Hebrew words. Members of the congregation became involved in practical ly all facets of life, not only pioneering efforts in commerce, industry and tourism, but also becoming actively involved with social causes, community service, politics, academics and the arts. Without a doubt, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Jewish Community in Curaao was the largest, most important and wealthiest congregation in the New World. The congregation gave financial contributions to build synagogues and consecrate cemeteries in new communities in the hemisphere such as in Newport (R hode Island), New York (New York), Kingston (Jamaica), St. Eustatius (Netherlands Antilles), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Charleston (South Carolina), Caracas (Venezuela), Rio Hacha (Colombia), St. Thomas (Virgin Islands), Paramaribo (Surinam) and Colon (P anama). Still today, the congregations in Newport and New York still offer a special prayer for the Curaao community every year on Yom Kippur. The Jews who arrived in Curaao centuries ago were of Sephardic descent and followed conservative religious rit uals and customs. 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 Mikv Israel developed in the early days. In the middle of the ninete enth century the ensuing rituals were being questioned by a portion of the community. They wanted to introduce some liberal and more modern rituals. Finally, fueled by commercial ill blood, a third of the congregation started its own congregation in 1864 w hich followed principles based on 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 Tempel Emanuel, and consecrated their own cemetery at Berg A ltena. Exactly 100 years later the congregations united and formed Mikv Israel Emanuel. The United Congregation chose to follow the rituals of the Reconstructionist Federation of America. It allowed us to preserve some of the historical and traditional c ustoms of both Congregations. In 2000, Mikv Israel Emanuel adapted its rituals once again, becoming egalitarian in religious services. In many ways the history of Jewish congregation in Curaao offers a unique window into Jewish and world history. Often United Congregation Mikv Israel Emanuel in Curaao, Netherlands Antilles, is the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas. Unlike many other early Jewish communities in the region, the co ngregation in Curaao has remained active throughout the centuries. The history of our people is testimony to our deep roots in Curaao and continued commitment to our Jewish heritage. In 2001, the congregation thus commemorate s 350 years of its found ing. Congregation Mikv Israel Emanuel will be marking this important milestone in history with activities celebrating its rich past and dedication to the future. Many international Jewish organizations will be attending the Commemoration Week activities i n April 2001 recognizing that Congregation Mikv Israel Emanuel, its synagogue and the Beth Haim cemetery together truly constitute a heritage for all Jews in the Americas. Michle Russel Capriles December 2000 References: The Antillean Panels; a history of the war and of today, exhibit catalogue, 1996 Gomes Casseres, Ch., Istoria krtiku di hudiunan di Krsou, 1990