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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”