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Almost every Shabbat weekend in Curacao, the pews in the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue in use remain largely empty.  The sound of the spiritual leader singing parts of the service in Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew recall a time when Curacao’s Jewish community, made up of Spanish and Portuguese traders, was the largest and most influential community in the Caribbean. But now, the community is struggling for its very survival.

The Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, located just north of Venezuela, is home to the oldest Jewish community in the Caribbean.  Sephardic Jewish settlers began arriving in Curacao in 1651.The Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, consecrated in 1732 is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Located in the heart of Curacao’s capital, Willemstad, the synagogue sees frequent visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Curacao’s world famous natural harbor.

Jewish settlers, mostly from Spain and Portugal, began settling in Dutch and Spanish Caribbean colonies in the 15th century.  Jewish settlers in Curacao were actively were engaged in shipping, trading, and banking. A number of prominent Jews owned plantations as well as slaves. Today, colonial era synagogues, cemeteries and museums serve as attractions for tourists all over the globe, the reality is that many of the Caribbean’s active Jewish communities have been facing sharp declines in numbers of active members. Curacao, dubbed the “mother of the Jewish community in the New World” and once a hub for Jewish cultural life in the colonial Caribbean era, struggles with the prospect of its Jewish community disappearing.

Inside Mikve Israel's Synagogue in Curacao, the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere

Inside Mikve Israel’s Synagogue in Curacao, the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere

At its peak, the Jewish community in Curacao reached 1,094 out of a total of about 3,500 whites in 1789. (The total population of Curacao was 20,988, 12,864 of which were slaves) In 1950, about 600 Jews called Curacao home out of a population of about 102,000.  Today, around 200 Jews live on the island out of a total population of 150,000 people.  A number of members of today’s Jewish community are able to trace back their family history a number of generations.

Mikve Israel’s members admit that the community is rapidly shrinking. “The youth are leaving, and family planning is working better than it used to in our father’s days,” said Rene Maduro, president of the Mikve Israel congregation.  On an average Shabbat service, there are about 20 members that come every week. Many of those who leave are young students. 28-year-old Christine Cheis, a board member of Mikve Israel left to study finance at Brandeis, but decided to return to Curacao to help out with her family’s retail business. “To Jews, like it has always been, education is highly, highly important to kids and parents. So almost everyone who is Jewish here, once they finish high school go abroad to further their education. A lot of people go to either Holland or the U.S.” Cheis recalled her days at the Hebrew school on the island. “Back then, my Hebrew school class was eight to ten people. But now the whole Hebrew school has eight to ten people.”

“The main thing is that the children just don’t come back,” said Avery Tracht, the hazzan and spiritual leader of Mikve Israel. “If there is a family that has three children, maybe one of them will come back.”

Avery Tracht, Hazzan of the Mikve Israel Synagogue in Curacao

Avery Tracht, Hazzan of the Mikve Israel Synagogue in Curacao

The decline of the Jewish community in Curacao is similar to other Jewish communities in the Caribbean. Barbados was one of the early settling places of Sephardic Jews from Brazil in the 1600s. “30 years ago, there were about 45 Jewish familes here,” said Celso Brewster, manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum in Bridgetown Barbados. “Today, we have about 16 families.” Aruba is also said to be home to 30 Jewish families.

Mikve Israel’s problems with declining membership are also shared by Shaarei Tsadek, the synagogue founded by Curacao’s Ashkenazi community.  Jews from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania largely migrated to Curacao in the 1920s, some 200 years after the arrival of the Sephardic community. While there were tensions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic community in the beginning, Curacao’s Ashkenazi population reached about 200 families at its peak.  Today, Shaarei Tsadek’s members classify themselves as Orthodox, though many members admittedly do not keep kosher houses and drive to Shabbat services.  Judith Bercher, a member of the Shaarei Tsadek who works at the gift shop of the Mikve Israel Synagogue said it was important to the members to try to keep Jewish tradition as much as possible. “Even though we don’t live 100% orthodox, the only way we can keep Judaism alive here is to have an orthodox leader. Otherwise the children will grow up without any learning.”

In contrast to the colonial Dutch architecture of Mikve Israel synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek is of a modern design with sleek architecture. The multi-million dollar synagogue, completed in 2006, holds its services in a room complete with air-conditioning and 200 plush seats. But just as with Mikve Israel, the majority of the seats stand empty when every week for Shabbat services. Ivan Bercher, president of the Shaarei Tsadek community said that many people left Curacao after the brand new shul was built.

Shaarei Tsedek synagogue in Curacao

Shaarei Tsedek synagogue in Curacao

“We used to have 200 families, said Bercher, “Now we have about 67 families, and 10 of those live abroad.  We have been in this situation for about ten years. Once in a while we get two or three new members. I hear there are one or two more coming from abroad.” Bercher, whose family has been in Curacao for generations, and has a son that moved to the States, said that many families wished to raise their children in more orthodox environments,  and chose to leave Curacao and move to the United States.

A member of the Shaarei Tsedek community in Curacao.

A member of the Shaarei Tsedek community in Curacao.

But the declining numbers intensely worry the members of both communities. 25-year-old Rabbi Yochai Menachem had his concerns when he arrived to Curacao 6 months ago from Israel to become the new spiritual leader of Shaarei Tsadek.  He was keenly aware of the aging population and low numbers. “You know, when I first got this opportunity to come here, I was thinking, “Was my mission to do the funeral of this community or to try to revive it? I decided to go for the revive option.”

“I personally think if the Jewish community could improve their connection to America, they would do better,” Tracht said. “I think we could have more [American] Jews retire here. I know a lot of people who have second homes or timeshares in Aruba. If that connection was more here to Curacao, the community could build up.” Also with the economy of Curacao struggling in recent years, members of both communities say that more Jewish people might come back if there were more opportunities on the island.

“Now the board is talking very much about what to do with our heritage if and when it comes to the point where we have to dissolve,” Tracht said. “I don’t see it happening anytime real soon, but we better make decisions about that now, so that in a generation when there are fewer people and fewer people care, we’ve already got something in writing about what they have to do with our stuff, the things in the museum, and the things in the synagogue.” DSC_0322

Joshua Pancer, who used to be on board of Shaarei Tsadek, shares in the hand wringing over the future of the Jewish community in Curacao. “For both communities it is a big concern, Pancer said. “ A couple of times a year, the presidents of the communities and even the rabbis of the community make speeches about how numbers and shrinking and about how people need to work hard to get people, if they are interested, to come to the island and that everyone should do their part.  Because as the numbers shrink, when one person doesn’t pay dues, or if they are on a certain committee to help out, you feel it right away because there is not as many people as there used to be. “

Low attendance numbers also sometimes interferes with the performance of Jewish customs. In orthodox custom, a minimum of ten men, called a minyan, is needed to read the Torah. Leaders of both communities say that sometimes, they do not have enough people to meet the minyan requirement.

Cheis and Pancer say that both boards try to come up with activities to encourage inactive members to participate, such as dinners, lunches, and other weekday activities.  “It seems in our grandparents’ generation, those members were more religious, or at least more involved in the community,” Pancer said.

As for tourism, while both communities acknowledge that Jewish tourists from North and South America could help raise the profile of Curacao, and their community, they do not believe that tourism will help solve the numbers problem. “Tourism helps, but it is not something we can fully rely on”, said Cheis. “Tourism can’t make a community. What would the tourists be coming to if we were not here?”

Despite the challenges, members of both Curacao’s Jewish synagogues remain hopeful and are confident that their communities will survive.  Cheis said she always knew she wanted to come back to Curacao. “I still knew I wanted to come back. I always believed in Curacao. I just really wanted to make my future here. Like Cheis, other young people are starting to come back. Pancer, 27, also decided to return six years ago to help run his family business in retail and commercial trade in textiles. “In general most people that grow up here and study abroad don’t come back. But our generation is one of the first in many years that a few more have started to come back, compared to the generation above us.”

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Rabbi Menachem said he hopes that Jewish families from other countries. “For one thing, we have a neighbor country, Venezuela, that has a pretty large Jewish community. The Jews there are practically living in a ghetto, a golden cage.” Menachem said that he initially considered an offer to go to Venezuela, but declined because of reports he had heard about the anti –semitism of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. “If we have the facilities and kosher food that Jewish people would need, maybe people from Venezuela could realize they could live freely as a Jew here.” Menachem also said he is trying to work to attract more tourism to get more hotels and other attractions on the island to serve Kosher food.

Rabbi Menachem said that he is inspired by the intense commitment and devotion that Curacao’s Jewish community posseses.  “I told the congregation that I admire them,” he said. “Many of them don’t read Hebrew. But these people are still coming; every Friday night, every Saturday morning, for 10, 20, 30 40 years. I think this is beautiful, and this is one of the reasons I agreed to come here because I see this devotion that people have here. If not for that, this community is dead. there is no reason to come. But they refuse to die.”

Judith Becher is not worried about the Jewish traditions dying in Curacao. “Those that we have left here are still going. Even if we only have 10 families, we will still keep going.”

My sunny rock of a new home may be hurricane free right now, but I cannot help but feel I am going through a bit of personal turbulence, both culturally and intellectually one month into my time here in Curacao.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to spend more time in Curacao was the fact that I fell in love with the mix of different nationalities and cultures here on the island. Before I came to live here, I had a rosy idea that Curacao was one big tropical United Colors of Benneton world of diversity. Realistically, I knew that the racially situation couldn’t be totally harmonious because of Curacao’s historical role in the Dutch slave trade. But hey, I thought, it looks like people are doing the best they can to co-exist.

However, the recent parliamentary elections in Curacao have brought a lot of racial and cultural tension to the surface. Long story short, Curacao’s parliamentary election gave the people of Curacao a choice to vote on the parties who either side with maintaining ties with Holland or calling for the independence of Curacao from Holland. I had the chance to report on the elections here and got the opportunity to speak with locals about their views.

Many Dutch people and other immigrants are upset with the victory of the political party Pueblo Soberano under the leadership of the controversial Helman Wiels. Wiels is largely seen to be anti-immigrant. He has been quoted in the past as saying that Dutch people should go home, and depending on who you ask, Wiels allegedly said that the Dutch should “go home in body bags”.  Conversely, ask Dutch people about what they think about Curacao, and they often say that the locals are ignorant,  are not thinking about their future and that “Curacao will become the next Haiti” without the help of Dutch people. I had one Dutch guy tell me, “I don’t know what is wrong with black people. They don’t know how to think about the future.”

I’ve heard “jokes” before here about how it would be better if local people here just went back to being slaves and the Dutch were masters again. Yeah. Really.

It is so clear that racial tensions are a real problem here in Curacao. Yet, when I have talk about racism and discrimination against people of color all over the world to Dutch people here, they are quick to blame those who are offended as “being overly sensitive”, and that there’s something “in your head to make you see a problem when there is none.”

I’m not surprised. I remember when articles came out last year about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sinterklaas is like the Dutch version of Santa Claus and Zwarte Piete, or Black Pete, is his helper who usually appears in what resembles a blackface costume), and the Dutch magazine Jackie using the word “niggabitch” to describe a sort of “ghetto style”  Dutch commenters on the internet were quick to defend the practices by accusing Americans of being overly racially sensitive and politically correct. I’ve had some people tell me, “ugh you Americans, you guys are the ones with the race problem, not us. “

I don’t know how to react in these situations. I’ve never before been in societal circles where people refuse to think critically about history or global power structures. I’ve never been before in situations where the burden of proof is on me to somehow prove racism still exists outside of my own black American head. The United States is by no means a post-racial paradise, but the times when I’ve engaged with people here on issues of racial and cultural discrimination, their responses make me think I’m back in the 1700s.

My response options are limited. I can: 1) Ignore them. 2) Engage them and hope to encourage people to think a little more critically. 3) Change the subject. 4) Get upset.  Three out of the four options usually are not particularly effective. Engaging people without getting emotionally frustrated about issues of race based power asymmetries is a tough task.

I have a friend on the island who was born in Curacao but is of Surinamese descent.  She lived in Holland for some time before returning to Curacao. We discussed these problems over drinks. “You just have to develop a thick skin,” she said.  “If you get emotional, you play into their stereotype of being the ‘emotional ethnic person’. So just try to tell them the basics…for them to try to imagine being in someone else’s shoes other than their own. You have to tell them to stop for a second and think about what they are saying and why they are saying it.”

The reason why I think Curacao is fascinating is the same reason why I think New York City is fascinating; worlds within worlds of cultures sharing a small piece of geography.

But I cannot help but feel something about this place sometimes. It feels as if Curacao is not free—emotionally, spiritually, economically, and financially—from its colonial past. As there are hidden wounds within all the communities masked by words unsaid, and dialogues avoided through socially constructed taboos on both sides about talking about race. I don’t agree with internal hierarchies and discrimination among locals based on who is Yu di Korsou, or a true Curaceleno….but that is a post for another time.

I do find myself missing the States lately, its openness, its freedoms in some senses. For now, I’ll take the edge off of my homesickness for New York by watching Sex and the City episodes.

This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!