Archives For Korsou

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.”

DSC_0047

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.”

(I’m going to use this space to post unpublished stories that I wrote during my time in Curacao. Here is a story I did last year after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year. I had a chance to interview Hensley Meulens, who is the Curacao-born batting coach for the squad. I wanted to find out about how Curacao manages to consistently produce top-ranked baseball talent despite its small size and limited resources. Enjoy!) 

A Caribbean Country of Champions

With the beginning of the Major League post season underway, the Little League season in  he Caribbean island of Curacao has just begun. With every year, more and more young boys in Curacao sign up to play for local baseball teams, hoping to become the next baseball sensation to play for the Major Leagues in the United States.

Many wonder how Curacao, the former capital of the Netherlands Antilles, known mostly for its beautiful beaches and historic Dutch architecture, has come to produce a number of talented baseball players for the Major Leagues. The small island with a population of 140,000 has produced around 12 players for the Major leagues and around 50 players in the minor leagues. Current players active in the leagues include Andruw Jones, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Roger Bernardina, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, Andrelton Simmons, shortstop for the Atlanta Braves ,and Jair Jurrgens, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. The Texas Rangers signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar in 2009 and called him up to the roster in August of this year, making him the youngest player currently in the major leagues.  Many local coaches credit Curacao’s wins in regional Caribbean championships and Little League tournaments with helping to capture the attention of American scouts. Curacao’s Pabao team from the capital city of Willemstad won the 2004 Little League World Series and were runners-up in 2005.

Hensley Muelens, batting coach for the San Francisco Giants, returned to his home country of Curacao on Tuesday greeted by cheering family and friends two weeks after the Giants won the title of World Series Champions. Muelens is one of the small Caribbean island’s biggest sports stars, as he is the first player to have been drafted to Major League Baseball, making his debut with the New York Yankees in 1989. Muelens is the first Curacaoan to become a major league coach, signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 as a hitting coach where he earned his first World Series Title. “Curacao is home for me,” Muelens said. I was born and raised here, I left when I was 18, but I always come back here after a long season to spend time with my family and friends.“ Muelens made a brief stop on his way to Venezuela to manage the Margarita Bravos. Former Prime Minister Geritt Schotte congratulated Muelens on his second World Series Title, calling Muelens, “Curacao’s national hero.” Hensley has been named as the manager for the team of the Kingdom of Netherlands for the World Baseball Classic in March 2013. He will coach several players from Curacao and Aruba.

Baseball is arguably the most popular sport in Curacao. There are about 30 youth leagues on the island, with boys as young as five years old joining T-ball teams. Willemstad. Muelens started a youth baseball team after his retirement from playing in the major leagues. “Kids have started to look up to the Curacao players who are making it into the big leagues. More and more families are signing their kids up to play baseball. They used to look up to me, but since I stopped playing you have kids who want to be like Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrgens.” Hensley, who estimates there are 4,000 kids who play in Curacao’s little league teams, runs clinics for promising talent with other MLB players every January. “We have raw talent here in Curacao. Our kids are big, they can run, they can throw hard, and they have a lot of power. Curacao is interesting for major league scouts.”  Ryan Hollander, 37, a local sports reporter, says, “The good thing for Curacao from a scout’s perspective is that we had major league players from the island that all had good years. Four teams with guys from Curacao made it into the playoffs so that looks good for the island.”

Randel Muelens, Hensley’s younger brother, is the head coach for the youth team that his brother started comprised of boys ages seven to nine years old. Lacking state of -the-art training facilities, youth leagues often practice and compete on fields without grass.  Randel credits the way that youth players are coached. “We say here in Curacao that our kids here ‘train on the rocks,’ Randel said. “When you can field here on our fields, you can field anywhere in the world.” Randel, who works as a field consultant for a local cable company, coaches the youth team twice a week in the evenings. “I think that Curacao’s secret is that we are very, very strict with our kids. We learn our techniques from the United States, and we train our boys in the proper technique from a very young age.”

Good weather all year round may contribute to the success of Curacaoan baseball players. With an average daily temperature of about 80 degrees, youth teams on the island can practice more and play more games than many of the teams that they compete against from other countries.

Young Curacaoan baseball players. Photo by Karen Attiah

Young Curacaoan baseball players. Photo by Karen Attiah

When asked whether the Curacao government contributes to the success of baseball on the island, Hensley said that there is not enough money in the national budget to adequately support baseball development on the island. Parents and coaches often hold fundraisers to help send their children to training camps. “The success of the kids who play baseball on the island is really due to the local communities and local coaches.” Hollander said. “We are missing a lot of investment from the government. Most of these coaches take time after their day jobs every week to help train these kids, and the families are really supportive.” Local companies help to sponsor the teams, donating uniforms and equipment.  The MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities  (RBI) donates equipment and sponsors tournaments in Curacao. While sports participation is largely confined to middle-class families, Hensley has set up programs to help children from low income areas have access to playing baseball.

Current and former Curacoan major leagues often return to the island to set up training camps and academies. Kenley Jansen, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, set up a foundation, KJ-74 to encourage more youth to participate in sports.

A Dutch investment group Sitching Willem 4 has proposed a 160 million Euro Baseball Complex Curacao, for the “development and placement of high performance talent” for players from the Caribbean and Latin America but plans to move forward have slowed due to political concerns.

When it comes to coaching, Randel says he can already see very promising talent in some of the young boys he coaches. At a evening practice with his little league team, he points to one of the taller boys in the group, practicing his swing. “See, there, he’s got talent. Everything comes naturally to him already at this age. Many parents dream of having their child play in the major leagues, but we encourage the boys to be good people first, Randel said. “We want them to do well in school. And what is most important is that the kids have fun.”

Goodbye Curacao…

August 19, 2013 — 7 Comments

Well my friends, after 11 months of Caribbean adventure, I have decided to return to the United States.

As I hope you could tell from my blog, I had my share of amazing and challenging experiences that I would trade for nothing. Many of those experiences, musings, and observations are still in my head and my heart. As I write now, I am back home in my hometown of Dallas, processing my experiences and preparing for my next moves. I have unpublished stories from the island that I’m excited to share in time. So while my physical self is back enjoying the Texas weather, my mind is still very much on Dushi Korsou.

I believe in there’s being a time, a season for all things. As I have written before, beneath the exterior of beautiful beaches, colorful buildings, and amazing weather, Curacao is a small island with increasingly big problems, politically, economically, and culturally. While I appreciated the laid back lifestyle, to be honest I never quite felt…at ease accepted quite at home. Maybe it was cultural differences, maybe it was moving from the hustle and bustle of New York to a small island community or just….maybe it was just my  time.

Sometimes things don’t always work the way we want, but things always seem to work for the best. At the risk of sounding cliche, I met a lot of amazing people along the way, and there are a special few that are in my heart and I will miss teribbly. When I stepped on my outbound flight last week from Curacao’s Hato airport, I knew I was returning a completely different person than the person who left everything behind in September of last year to chase her dreams.

Thank you to everyone who followed my adventures here, I really appreciated your comments, support and emails. I hope you continue to follow on my next adventures!

xoxo Karen

 

 

, I spotted this costumed bike rider around Fort Amsterdam. I couldn’t see his face, as it was covered by a mask under an elaborate headress, but he had protest flags adorning his bike. My friends tell me “he” or at least his character, has been around for years. Who is he and what is he doing? Anyone know?

Ex-Curacao Prime Minister Gerrit Schotte left the government offices of Fort Amsterdam Sunday night after locking himself inside as a protest to an interim cabinet being formed 3 weeks out until elections. He and his party, the MFK, paraded around Salina area, before arriving at a press conference to address his followers.

While the international press reported Schotte’s statements that the situation in Curacao amounted to a “coup d’etat”, the streets of Willemstad were largely quiet yesterday, and this reporter would estimate that perhaps only 100 people rallied around Schotte and attended the press conference.