Published On: Wed, Oct 12th, 2016

Historic Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao welcomes Rosh Hashanah

SynagogueWILLEMSTAD - Age, a sand floor, and a powerful 150-year-old pipe organ - a gift from the government of the Netherlands - are what distinguish Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a major tourist attraction.

With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (year 5777 on the Hebrew calendar), it will come alive with worshippers just as it has on Jewish holidays and weekends since 1730.

Last spring, from where our cruise ship docked, it was a 10-minute walk for my wife and me across a pedestrian bridge and into town.

The stately, lemon-color, 284-year-old synagogue occupies half a block in the heart of downtown Willemstad, the capital of the Curaçao and its commercial hub. It was built in the early 1700s, mostly by Sephardic Jews who fled 16th- and 17th-century persecution in Europe. More than 2,000 of them ultimately found refuge here.

Today, they number fewer than 300 of this Caribbean island's 155,000 residents, own a couple dozen of the 1,000 or so Curaçao businesses, and hold no government posts, according to Avery Tracht, the Ohio-born, 63-year-old cantor who has served as the synagogue's spiritual leader since 2005. He was trained at Hebrew Union College, which has facilities in New York, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem.

Many young people leave the island to pursue higher education and more diverse financial opportunities in otherSynagogue countries, Tracht said.

"Curaçao has never known any large anti-Semitism; maybe a single incident here or there, but in general not really a problem at all," he added.

Most island residents are Catholic, but you'll find Protestant, Muslim, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, and Methodist houses of worship here, as well.

Because its members helped initiate and finance Jewish congregations in a number of North and South American communities, the Curaçao synagogue earned a reputation as "The Mother of Jewish Congregations in the Americas."

The oldest Jewish temple in North America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., a National Historic Site, was born in 1763 out of the generosity of Mikve Israel members.

We lined up with other tourists and paid $10 admission to explore the landmark synagogue, which is open to visitors Monday through Friday. On display are museum artifacts and Judaica, including a Torah scroll still in use that was brought to the island more than 350 years ago by early Jewish settlers displaced by the Spanish Inquisition.

Mikve Israel is affiliated with the liberal Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the World Union of Progressive Judaism, Tracht said. His Friday-night, Saturday, and holiday services are conducted in Hebrew and English with Reform prayer books.

A thick layer of sand covers the synagogue floor, a symbolic reminder of the exodus of Jews from Egypt, their 40 years of desert wanderings, and the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. (To muffle the sound of their secret prayer services during the Inquisition, European Jews often covered their creaking wooden floors with sand.)

The structure's plain interior, with coral and white limestone walls, vaulted ceiling, mahogany pews and benches, contrasts sharply with its striking exterior facade with blue glass windows.

Four brass, 24-arm chandeliers hang amid four pillars. The organ, perched on a loft, is played during services.

The chandeliers are lighted only during the sacred annual Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, for weddings, and other special occasions because they have to be dismantled and cleaned before use, we were told, and that can require nearly a half day's work.

Some Jewish customs here differ from those in the United States - weddings in particular. Instead of crunching a wine glass with his foot, the groom tosses the glass into a wedding tray. A 200-year-old silver wedding tray is among the artifacts on exhibit.

There's one other synagogue on the island, the Orthodox Shaarel Tsedek, which has about 100 members.

Shaped like a drumstick and only 35 miles from the coast of Venezuela, Curaçao is an autonomous part of the Netherlands, ruled by a democratically elected parliament.

Dutch is the official language, but multiracial islanders also speak English, Spanish, and Papiamentu, a Creole patois.

In 1997, the city of Willemstad - with a natural harbor that attracts 3,000 ships a year - was added to UNESCO'S World Heritage sites.

In recent years, a number of Jewish families from other countries have arranged to have bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and other religious gatherings at the historic synagogue.

by Si Liberman, For The Inquirer

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