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Curacao's place in the Diaspora

Email|Print| Text size + By Si Liberman
Globe Correspondent / October 23, 2005

WILLEMSTAD, Curaçao -- Age, sand, and a powerful 139-year-old pipe organ are what distinguish Mikve Israel-Emanuel, one of Curaçao's historic treasures.

Occupying almost an entire block in the heart of downtown Willemstad, capital of the Netherlands Antilles, the stately lemon-colored building is the Western Hemisphere's oldest continuously operated synagogue. We came upon it after crossing a floating pedestrian bridge supported by 16 pontoon boats near where our cruise ship had docked.

Mikve Israel-Emanuel was built in 1732, nearly 100 years after the first Jews arrived, most of them Sephardics fleeing persecution in Europe. More than 2,000 Jews ultimately found refuge on this Caribbean island 35 miles off the coast of northern Venezuela. Modern Curaçao remains part of the Netherlands, though autonomous and ruled by a democratically elected parliament. Dutch is the official language, but multiracial islanders also speak English, Spanish, and Papiamentu, a Creole patois.

Willemstad, with a natural harbor that attracts 3,000 ships a year, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today, Jews number fewer than 600 of the island's 160,000 residents, own about 100 of the 1,000-plus businesses registered with the Chamber of Commerce, and hold no government posts, says Elise Krijt, a spokesperson for the synagogue's board of directors.

In Willemstad, however, the Antilles' commercial hub, a third of the merchants are Jewish.

''We read about anti-Semitic incidents elsewhere, but we haven't experienced any here," Krijt said.

About 80 percent of Curaçao residents are Catholic, but Methodist, Muslim, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, and Mormon houses of worship dot the island, serving the needs of 55 cultures.

Early on, Mikve Israel-Emanuel earned a reputation as ''The Mother of Jewish Congregations in the Americas" because its members helped initiate and finance congregations in many North and South American communities, including Newport, R.I., home of America's oldest Jewish temple, the Touro Synagogue (1763).

A $2 entry fee opens Mikve Israel-Emanuel's doors to visitors, and on a sunny December day many were lining up to see the landmark and its adjoining museum.

''We employ a full-time rabbi, who conducts services every Friday evening and Saturday morning and on the first and last day of Jewish festivals," said Krijt.

That rabbi is Boston-born Gerald Zelermyer, 65, who retired two years ago after 20 years as spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, Conn. He and his Curaçao-born, US-educated wife of 20 years, Heske, moved to the island in 2002.

The 300-member Willemstad congregation is affiliated with the liberal fourth movement of Judaism, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Another synagogue on the island, the Orthodox Shaarei Tzedek, has 150 members.

A thick layer of sand, some of which is said to have come from Israel, covers the floor of Mikve Israel-Emanuel. It serves as a symbolic reminder of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and wanderings in the desert, and the practice under the Inquisition of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to sprinkle sand on their creaking floors to muffle their footsteps when they congregated in secret.

The building's plain interior with coral and white limestone walls, vaulted ceilings, and mahogany pews and benches contrasts sharply with its striking exterior with blue glass windows. A 346-year-old Torah is still in use. The pipe organ was restored recently as a gift from the Netherlands government.

Four brass, 24-stem chandeliers with Dutch Delft patterns tower amid four pillars. The organ, perched on a loft, is played during services, which are conducted in English and Hebrew. The chandeliers are lighted only during the annual Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, for weddings, and for other special occasions because their dismantling, cleaning, and replacing can take half a day.

Some Jewish customs differ here; at weddings, instead of crushing a wine glass with his foot, the groom tosses the glass onto a tray. A 300-year-old wedding tray is among the artifacts in the synagogue's museum.

Another artifact is the rectangular 12-square-foot mikvah, the traditional bath used to ensure female ritual purity, extending from a brick wall near the museum entrance. Neglected and seemingly abandoned, it held about a foot of cloudy rainwater.

Citing the island's rich Jewish culture, ethnic diversity, beaches, tropical climate, and picturesque waterfront shopping area, Mikve Israel-Emanuel's board of directors has been encouraging Jews from other countries to schedule weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other family celebrations in the historic temple. Since it began offering its facilities to non-Curaçao residents two years ago, there have been about 10 bar and bat mitzvahs and four weddings, all in accordance with Sephardic rituals and traditions.

Contact Si Liberman, a freelance writer in New Jersey, at Siliberm@aol.com.

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