By Mervyn Rothstein
Serene and majestic, the bright yellow Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue sits at Hanchi Snoa 29 in the main shopping area of downtown Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, a 171-square-mile island in the southern Caribbean Sea. Dating to 1732, the synagogue is the oldest continuously functioning Jewish house of worship in the Western Hemisphere.
Visited by 16,000 people yearly, the synagogue, with its sand floors, was established largely by Sephardic descendants of Amsterdam Jews who had fled the Inquisition, first in Spain and then in Portugal. It is one of the most popular attractions on this formerly Dutch island of 150,000 residents 40 miles north of Venezuela.
Yet, there lies an existential problem. The tourists vastly outnumber the 200 or so members of the synagogue’s rapidly diminishing congregation, which traces back even farther, to 1651. And the dwindling membership is cause for concern about the Reconstructionist synagogue’s future, said René David Levy Maduro, who has been a member of B’nai B’rith since 1964 and a member of its International Board of Governors for decades, welcoming numerous fellow members and leaders who come from around the world to visit this historic Jewish site. Concurrently, Levy Maduro has served as a board member of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue for 40 years, with terms as president and chairman of the board of the congregation, and is now a member of its advisory Council of Elders.
“We are slowly but surely losing our people to age, primarily,” said Levy Maduro. “But it’s a problem we have on a small island where our children, once they reach college age, often go abroad to Europe or the United States. Unfortunately, they then discover that there’s a big world out there, and they decide either to have a profession that is not very useful on the island, because we have so many already. How many doctors or engineers or lawyers can you have on a small island? Or they meet their partners out there, and how many of their partners want to come to a small island?”
As recently as 15 years ago, there were 300 congregation members, according to Ron Gomes Casseres, also a former president and chairman of the synagogue’s board, and a spokesman for the synagogue. About 40 percent of the congregation is over 60, Gomes Casseres said. “The young people are also leaving for better economic opportunities abroad,” he said. “Over the past 10–15 years the economy has been very weak here, though recently there has been a bit of an upturn.”
Gomes Casseres, a commercial banker who traces his Portuguese-Curaçaoan heritage back to the 17th century, is married to an American, and their three children are all married and living in the United States. “I graduated from M.I.T., and we came here. So the United States is our children’s second homeland, and they all ended up marrying somebody in the U.S. It’s their current home, and they probably have a better future in terms of career than Curaçao, which hasn’t grown.”
These days, there are only about 325 Jews on the island, Gomes Casseres said. There’s another congregation, the Ashkenazi modern Orthodox Shaarei Tsedek, about 15 minutes away, which has just over 100 members, its president, Ivan Aaron Becher, said. Its population has similarly fallen over the years, for the same reasons as Mikvé Israel’s. “Twenty-five years ago, there were 228 families,” Becher said. Ashkenazim, European Jews, began arriving in Curaçao in the 1920s and 1930s, fleeing pogroms and the Nazis. Shaarei Tsedek’s first permanent synagogue began holding services in 1959; its new air-conditioned building opened in 2006.
Levy Maduro said of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, “We are doing our very, very best to keep our synagogue alive. It’s a big burden on the congregants to keep the congregation alive physically. This is a monument that takes an enormous amount of maintenance. We have a staff of eight or nine people that have to do the work. Unfortunately, it’s catching up with us. We are no longer what we used to be.”
The synagogue needs help, he said. “It’s very important that we get outsiders to realize the importance of this congregation,” he said. “We need some patrons. We need some people out there who are financially able to make yearly donations to the congregation. The maintenance of the building alone costs $35,000-$40,000 a year. How can we do that?”
According to the Curaçao history website, the first Jew to arrive there, in 1634, was Samuel Cohen, an interpreter for Johan van Walbeeck aboard the Dutch fleet that defeated the Spanish and took over the island. Then, 17 years later, in 1651, 10 to 12 Jewish families from Amsterdam’s Sephardic Portuguese community, led by a man named Joao d’Ylan, arrived as agricultural settlers. By 1654, they had established Congregation Mikvé Israel.
Gomes Casseres said the congregation dates itself from 1651. “1651—that’s 366 years ago,” he pointed out emphatically. “Why do we say 366 years? We know that in 1654 there was a letter directed to the board of Mikvé Israel. It’s part of the archives that belong to the synagogue. So it already existed as an organization. We know that the first group came in 1651. Since there were 10 or 12 families, they would have had enough for a minyan” for prayer services.
The next group of Jews arrived in 1659, he said, “and they brought with them a Torah scroll that was sent with them by the Amsterdam Jewish community.” It is still used in the synagogue.
Farming on the island wasn’t successful, Gomes Casseres said, so the Jews focused on trade between Northern Europe and South America. Several successive synagogues went up on the island, followed in 1703 by the first on the current site. The present 1732 building is modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, which dates from 1675.
“In the mid-1700s there were about 1,500 Jews on the island,” Gomes Casseres said. “This was a very vibrant Sephardic Jewish Orthodox community. In 1731 they decided that the building that was here wasn’t enough for the growing population. So this building was commissioned and opened in 1732. I like to say when I talk to American visitors that this means that it’s 44 years older than the United States.” (The synagogue street’s name, Hanchi Snoa, is a combination of Hanchi, the Papamiento, or local Creole language, word for alley or lane, and Snoa, an abbreviation of Esnoga, an old Ladino word for synagogue.)
Except for a few changes, including a 1974 renovation, the building today is as it was 285 years ago, Gomes Casseres said. “It is set up the way Sephardic synagogues are set up,” he said. “The bimah is in the center with the seats on either side. Under the clock, in a raised section, are the seats for the board—in those years, until the mid-19th century, the board was more than simply governance of the congregation. It could actually mediate not only issues between Jews that affected the congregation but also as judges in civil cases. Not only were they sitting higher, but they’re right at the windows, and when the windows are opened it’s the coolest part of the synagogue.”
The azure stained-glass windows provide a beautiful blue glow. The dark wood of the bimah and the benches and the ark is mahogany, and most of it dates back to the beginning of the synagogue. The gleaming copper chandeliers all go back at least to the synagogue’s beginnings and the one closest to the ark is likely from the previous building. “A ship with all the material needed for the synagogue was loaded in Holland and sailed here,” Gomes Casseres said.
Perhaps the most famous feature of the synagogue is its floor of sand. (Several Caribbean synagogues, including one on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, have such floors.) There’s disagreement about what the sand signifies. Some believe it represents the desert the Jews traveled over when they fled with Moses from Egypt and headed to the Promised Land. Others say it is a reminder of the Inquisition, when Jews prohibited from practicing their religion would hold secret services in their basements, whose floors were dirt or sand to muffle sound.
In the 1850s, the synagogue remained Orthodox, but the Reform movement that had started in Germany and moved elsewhere in Europe and to the United States was beginning to reach out. “Young people who studied in Holland and other places liked those ideas and came back and started demanding changes in the ritual, but the powerful rabbi and board were very Orthodox and said no modernizations, no reforms,” Gomes Casseres said. “So in 1863, there came a schism. Those younger members left and formed Temple Emanuel.”
That temple put in an organ. “And people over there said it’s a fun thing when you have an organ,” he continued. “So members of this congregation decided they also wanted an organ. But the board vetoed it, and more members started to go over to Emanuel. So finally, in 1869, Mikvé Israel installed an organ” high up inside the entrance.
The organ also changed somewhat the building’s architecture. “In 1732, we had a balcony on only the right side of the synagogue” facing the ark, Gomes Casseres said. “It was where the women sat for the Orthodox services. But when they put in the organ in the center they thought they would put a new balcony there. But then it looked ugly—we really had only two-thirds of a balcony. So they put in the balcony on the left side. Those second and third balconies go back to the 1860s.” The organ is still the original and, he said, “It’s one of the four or five oldest pipe organs made in Holland that are still in existence.”
In the 1950s, Congregations Mikvé Israel and Emanuel “started to realize it wasn’t going to last very long for each of them, because both were losing members and getting smaller,” Gomes Casseres said. “I know this because my father, Charles Gomes Casseres, was for about 20 years president of Emanuel. That’s where I grew up. I was Reform, not Orthodox. They decided to get together. And in 1963—almost 100 years to the date of the schism—inspired by Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin [of Mikvé Israel], we reunited.” Although it remains a Sephardic synagogue, he noted, about 30 percent of its members are Ashkenazi.
It was Maslin who proposed that the recombined congregation become Reconstructionist, with its liberal theology. “But we’re not exactly Reconstructionist,” Gomes Casseres said. “The ritual of the services was very important to us. So although we are a member of the Reconstructionist organization, we use a Reform prayer book. We have always worn yarmulkes.” And a tallis is part of the service.
“We like to call ourselves a Criollo organization,” he said, meaning they are uniquely Curaçaoan. “One of the nicest parts is the Torah service, which goes back many centuries and is a combination of Portuguese and Hebrew. It still starts off with a blessing in Portuguese for the Royal House of Orange in the Netherlands, which basically allowed us to come here in 1651 and have religious freedom.”
The synagogue site also includes the small Jewish Historical Cultural Museum devoted to religious and cultural artifacts, among them a gleaming silver Chanukiah that has been lit each year for 300 years. The site is open to visitors Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission is $10. Sabbath services, Fridays from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon, are open to worshippers, with proper dress requested.
Gomes Casseres took a moment to reflect further on the congregation’s future. Most people believe that the floors represent Moses in the desert or secret Jews during the Inquisition. But for him—as well as for Levy Maduro—there’s a more important explanation, one that both have often espoused.
“There’s another one I like,” Gomes Casseres said. “Take it for what it’s worth. It’s from Bereshit—Genesis—where God says to Abraham that He will multiply his people like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. To me, that’s a meaningful reason.”