Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Deep in the Caribbean

The thought of a Caribbean vacation readily arouses lovely fantasies as the cold days of winter set in. Consider, perhaps, a trip to Curacao, where one can enjoy sun and surf and also explore the history of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere. 

The island of Curacao was conquered in 1634 by the Dutch fleet commanded by Johan van Walbeeck, among whose crew members was Samiel Coheno, who served as pilot, interpreter and guide. While Coheno remained on Curacao, the real Jewish settlement there only began in the 1650s, when Joao d’Ylan, a prominent Jew, gained permission to bring a small group of Jewish settlers.

The original Jewish community of a dozen families settled a Plantation named “De Hoop”(the Hope), and was supplemented by a second group of settlers in 1659. Although they came from the Netherlands, most of these Jews were refugees from the Spanish and Portugese Inquisitions. Under the control of the Dutch, they were able to openly practice their Jewish faith*, which is why they were joined in their Curacao venture by Jews who had settled in Brazil. Although they did not succeed at farming, the Jewish community was successful in trade. 

Within a decade of their arrival, the Jews established Congregation Mikve Israel and built their first synagogue building in the city of Willemstad in 1674. By 1732, a larger space was necessary. The new building is still in use today, and it is the oldest synagogue in continual use in the Americas. 

At its peak, the Jewish community comprised 50% of the European population of Curacao. In the 1860s, a third of the community separated from Mikve Israel to form a Reform community and built Temple Israel. One hundred years later, as the island’s Jewish community began to dwindle, the two synagogues merged to form Mikve Israel-Emmanuel.

Today, Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, while still an operating synagogue, is a popular tourist destination (particularly noted for its sand floors meant to muffle sound - a tradition from the days of the Inquisition) and serves as the location of the Jewish Historical Cultural Museum. 

This Treat was written in honor of December 15, which is a significant date in Curacao history as it is both the date of the 1954 Charter for the Kingdom, which made Curacao equal to the Netherlands, and the date on which its autonomy was voted for in 2008.

*They did run into some resistence from the governor of the New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, who felt that the Jews were given unfair advantages over other settlers. 

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