In Curacao, they built their shul on sand
It’s an average Monday afternoon and Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, in Willemstad, Curacao, is bustling. There are many visitors in the adjacent museum and in the sandy-floored main synagogue a young girl, a daughter of one of the 450 members, is at the bimah rehearsing for her batmitzvah.
The Caribbean is home to some of the oldest Jewish communities in North America, dating back to the 1600s. As in most of the diaspora, many of these groups have been on the decline. Not so at the moment: a boom in tourism and holiday-home purchases mean many island communities are growing; some by as much as 10 per cent a year.
“We are now even considering recruiting a rabbi,” says Celso Brewster, a Bajan Jew who manages the Nidhe Israel Museum and synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados, which has a community of nearly 100.
‘’Plus,’’ he adds, “there are plans to open a kosher restaurant.
“There is also a historic city block project under way, with several 18th-century Jewish tombstones uncovered. The completion date for the project is expected to coincide with Barbados’s 50th anniversary of independence in November 2016.”
On St Maarten — in the Antilles Archipelago — Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz runs services and even Friday-night suppers at the new Chabad centre.
Regular flights to all the islands mean kosher food is no longer hard to find: “There is a local supermarket that sells a variety of kosher products including bread and milk and many of the basic products that you would find in the US,” says Rabbi Chanowitz.
On Aruba — which has a Jewish Prime Minister, Mike Eman — kosher food is not a problem either. Rabbi Daniel Kripper of Beth Israel Synagogue, which has 75 residents and 180 visitor members, says: “We can get most things in the supermarkets here including Empire chickens and Hebrew National products.”
Besides the Caribbean sun, another draw is the general absence of antisemitism. Mr Brewster admitted: “There have one or two incidents, mainly verbal, but overall we are ok.”
As tourism grows, so does the infrastructure of the islands, creating more job opportunities, meaning young Jews are less likely to leave.
“The last bat- and barmitzvah were last year as well as the last wedding,” says Mr Brewster. “Another wedding is due soon. It’s all good. People are starting to realise, they don’t have to move to Miami, they can come to the Caribbean.”
By Francine Cohen
Photo: The sandy-floored Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue