Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Review – The Oldest Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere in Continuous Use

Temple Mikve Israel Emmanuel exterior

My husband and I recently visited the amazing Dutch island of Curacao. It is a southern Caribbean island vibrant with Colonial architecture, and known for Dutch Creole cuisine. Curacao, called the Ruby of the Caribbean, has a population of about a hundred and sixty thousand people. The capital is Willemstad, the government is autonomous with the Netherlands, and it is listed on the UNESCO world heritage site. Today one can find more than 55 different nationalities that include its African heritage, a European flavor, and a well-established Jewish culture. Most of the residents speak a number of languages: Papiamento, the native language, Dutch, English, and Spanish.Baoase Luxury Resort

Superior Beach Front Pool Suite by Night, Photo: Courtesy of Baoase Luxury Resort

Curacao has the honor of being the first Caribbean destination to be independently mapped for Google Street View. Watch for this new street view option and also visit the Curacao Tourist Board or the Curacao Hospitality and Tourism Association, or check this travel Curacao Travel Guide.

The waterway at the Baoase Luxury Resort, Photo: Ellen Lunz

We stayed at the lovely Baoase Luxury Resort, the only Five Star Plus luxury resort on Curacao. It is right on the beach, and features gorgeous villas and suites, the famous Baoase Culinary Beach Restaurant, and a stunning private beach with sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea. More information and reservations at the baoase website.. The Baoase Luxury Resort is on the south side of the island and boasts 300 meters of beachfront property. The Baoase Culinary Beach Restaurant was also voted one of the best restaurants on Curacao, using a combination of unique Asian and French food.

Entry to the Synagogue

Our visit to the magnificent Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, consecrated in 1732, was a highlight of our trip. My husband and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Hazzan Avery Tracht, the spiritual leader of the temple. It is among the most historic temples in the world, and its artifacts have been well preserved. The temple is located at Hanchi di Snoa 29, Post Box 322, Willemstad, Curacao, Dutch Caribbean, +599-9-461-1067. In addition to the synagogue, the Curacao Jewish Historical Museum contains cultural and religious artifacts from the island. Many of these pieces are still used today during the congregation services and rituals.

 

The Museum displays a variety of priceless ceremonial artifacts, collected over the past 350 years reflecting Jewish life on Curacao. One of these items is a Torah scroll brought back by the first Jewish settlers to the island. It also includes several 200-year old Chairs of Elijah. There is a Silver (Wedding tray from Holland, still used when smashing the glass during wedding ceremonies, and a 300-year old spice box, dating from 1704.

Synagogue interior

Additionally, there were many hand-wrought K’tarim silver (Torah crowns), from the first half of the 18th century. There were decorated Ketubot (marriage contracts), the oldest dating back to 1739. Other priceless Jewish artifacts included coins minted by local Jewish families, commemorative stamps, and brooches made with the hair of deceased relatives, and finally, a complete Seder table, with all the ritual objects and symbols for the festival of Pesach (Passover), which is the centerpiece of the second floor exhibit area.

The Banca where members of the board sit during a service

We were startled and fascinated to discover that the floor of the synagogue is sand. The use of wood is historical and richly symbolic; first, it harkens back to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, when “converted” Jews (whose descendants emigrated to Curacao) maintained secret rooms to conduct services with floors of sand to muffle the sounds of worship, and secondly, to remind one of the 40-years wandering in the Sinai Desert, from Egypt to the Promised Land. This is also associated with God’s telling Abraham that “I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heavens.”

Interior of the Synagogue- center

Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is an extraordinary congregation, consisting of about 145 households representing 200 members, in addition to100 Ashkenazi Jews, who relocated from Central Europe, and settled here during the first half of the 20th century. They founded a modern orthodox Ashkenazi congregation called Shaarei Tsedek. Today, Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel includes several members of Ashkenazi descent, and Shaarei Tsedek also has many members of Sephardic descent. The Jewish Museum contains a wonderful gift shop, which contains numerous souvenirs and gift items for sale including Jewish life cycle gifts, postcards, challah covers, silver coins, mezuzot, mugs, magnets, plates, tiles and t-shirts, with pictures of the synagogue among other Judaic specialties.

 

Interestingly, Curacao has two Jewish cemeteries – the newer dating back to 1860, is located near the neighborhood of Berg Altena. The old Beth Haim Bleinheim Cemetery, was consecrated in 1659 and its oldest tombstone dates back to 1668. Many of the tombstones are works of art, and are of exceptional historic interest. Guided tours are available, and the old cemeteries are open daily except for Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

Synagogue interior

Stepping into the synagogue, one is walking into a building that is 285 years old! It has been in continuous use since 1732. The congregation itself is a century older, and was established in 1651. Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel celebrated 365 years of its founding in 2016. Many of the original families wanted to introduce reforms into their services. Unable to do so, these same families broke away, and became Temple Emanuel, which at the time, became the only Sephardic Reform congregation in the entire world. In 1964, Temple Emanuel joined Mikve Israel, which is today affiliated with both the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In 1864 the members of what would be Temple Emanuel broke away from Mikvé Israel because they wanted reforms. In 1964 when both congregations numbers had dwindled, this same congregation re-merged with Mikvé Israel and became Mikvé Israel-Emanuel. The official name is the United Netherlands-Portuguese congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.

Synagogue interior

Guests are welcome to join the temple to worship during Shabbat and festival services, which are conducted in both Hebrew and English. Interestingly enough, according to Hazzan, the head spiritual leader, there is currently no anti-semitism in Curacao. The Dutch king in 1650 sent 12 Jews to Curacao to become farmers. However, the land was not amenable to this, so the Dutch East West In 1864 the members of what would be Temple Emanuel broke away from Mikvé Israel-Emanuel because they wanted reforms. In 1920, Ashkenazi Jews first arrived in Curacao, and were assimilated with the other Jews living there.  Hazzan noted that there are over 50 nationalities represented in Curacao. Therefore, his congregation is racially and ethnically diverse. The spiritual leader, Hazzan Avery Tracht, has come a long way from Dayton, Ohio. Visiting Mikvé Israel-Emanuel was a memorable experience during our wonderful stay in Curacao.

Photos: Courtesy of Hazzan Avery Tracht unless otherwise noted.

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