Wagner College Holocaust Education Center Intern Ilya Kneppelhout recently visited the oldest continuous use synagogue in the Americas. Below is a reflection that he wrote about his experience.
Curacao, a small island in the Caribbean that is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s famous for its white beaches and light blue sea. That’s one of the two main reasons I’ve visited this beautiful island three times already. The other primary reason is that my half-brother lives here with his family. Apart from visiting a very interesting museum about slavery, we’ve never done anything but laying on the beach. This time, however, I made a visit with my parents to the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas: synagogue Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.
Holocaust survivors Brenda and Moritz Perelman, who I can almost call my paternal grandparents now, told me about this place and said it’s definitely worth visiting. They were right. The synagogue is located in the center of Willemstad, the capital of Curacao. With its beautiful high yellow brick walls, the building immediately jumps to your eye. Upon entering the synagogue, you see a sign above the entrance, meaning ‘Blessed may you be in your coming’. You step into a synagogue that has been in continuous use since 1732. The Congregation itself was established in 1651, thus over 360 years old, and is therefore the oldest active Jewish Congregation in the Western Hemisphere.
The intriguing thing about this synagogue is that it has sand on the floor. This isn’t because of renovations, like my mother thought, it has a history. One reason is that it’s modeled after the encampment which the Jewish forefathers established in the Sinai desert during their forty years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land. Next, the ancestors of the synagogue’s congregation, who were, for the most part, ‘secret’ Jews living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition until their emigration to the Netherlands and other countries. After settling in Curacao, the ancestors remembered how they had to put sand on the floor of the secret rooms in which they worshipped. The sand helped muffled the sounds during their services. If discovered they would have suffered lifelong imprisonment, loss of all property and often burning at stake. The sand floor serves thus as a reminder of the remarkable faith and courage of these Spanish-Portuguese Jews in the face of such terror. Lastly, there is sand on the floor to symbolize that God told Abraham: ‘I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens’ (Genesis 13:16).
Upon leaving the synagogue, a sign reads: ‘And blessed may you be in your going’. Even though I’m not religious myself, I was definitely blessed. It was a special experience to visit a synagogue that carries so much history and symbolic meaning. I recommend everyone to have a relaxed vacation in the Caribbean, enjoying the beaches and sea. However, no islands but Curacao provides such a beautiful place.
Additional information Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue:
The serves the roughly 350 Jewish people in Curacao. In the 18th century, there were about 2000 Jews on this island, but because if educational immigration, the number decreased. Moreover, the synagogue is open for anyone who wants to worship during Shabbat and Festival services.
Attached to the synagogue, one finds a Jewish Cultural Historical Museum. It includes displays of unusual objects, which illustrate the culture, practices, and history of the community. Definitely worth visiting.