Curacao’s historic Jewish population dwindles

The southern Caribbean island of Curacao is home to what is billed as the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, but the Jewish community has been steadily declining for years.

Late on a recent Friday, Avery Tracht, cantor of the stately yellow Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, worried there wouldn’t be the minimum 10 adults to hold the complete service.

But soon, nearly 20 trickled through the heavy wooden door and singing poured out into the narrow streets of Willemstad’s waterfront Punda district.

Jews settled in the then-Dutch colony of Curacao in 1651. They were the descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and settled in Amsterdam. At the community’s peak, in the late 1700s, there were some 2,000 Jews on the island.

The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue was founded in 1732. Smooth sand covers the floor, a Sephardic tradition that, by some accounts, represents the days of the Inquisition when Jews had to muffle the sound of forbidden services.

Today, the synagogue has 350 members, but only about 200 live on the island. An orthodox synagogue in another part of Willemstad has about 60 families.

Curacao, part of the Netherlands Antilles, has an overall population of about 140,000.

The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is one of the major tourist attractions in Curacao, drawing up to 800 visitors a day at the peak of the tourist season in late December. It also regularly hosts weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs for people from the U.S., Europe or Canada.

But regular services rarely draw more than a couple dozen people.

Tracht, who is from Dayton, Ohio and has worked at the synagogue for 3 1/2 years, says the main reason for the decline is migration. People tend move to the Netherlands and the U.S. to pursue their education and never return.

Rene Maduro, a longtime member, says Curacao’s Jews do what they can to preserve Judaism on the island but the population still continues its steady fall. “I can’t say whether in 100 years it will still be a functioning congregation,” he says.

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