When I first visited Curaçao in February 2019, I learned that the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was here. Now that I’m a resident, I have realized that there is a rich history on the island that I knew little about, so I had to learn more!
The Brief History
For those who are interested, there is a lot of documentation and information on the history of Jewish immigration to this island. The connection to this synagogue is really about the Sephardi Jews from the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain arriving in the mid-17-century.
Most of these immigrants were those who had fled Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands for religious freedom. As the Dutch began to move into the Americas, many of these Sephardi Jews went to the Americas from the Netherlands as translators and traders. They founded the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue in 1732.
The synagogue is still in use today, but visitors can pay $10.00 US weekdays between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm for a self-guided tour of the interior and the museum.
If guided tours are more your thing, this is a possibility as well. This, however, is way more than just visiting this synagogue. It is the Jewish Heritage Tour. You will visit this synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, the Jewish village in Mahaai, and the new Ashkenazi synagogue. This tour is $75 US.
The Self-Guided Experience
I waited to visit this synagogue until my mom came for her visit, which took place during this holiday season. We parked in Otrabanda and made our way across the floating bridge into Punda. When we arrived, we paid at the front, were ushered in, and left to our own devices after that. We were allowed to take pictures, just not in the museum.
Mom and I entered the synagogue and were immediately amazed. The sand on the floor was hard to miss. We had heard a little about this on our tour of the Blue Curaçao Liquor, but we weren’t really sure why it was there. According to The Smithsonian Magazine, I learned that the sand is “both to remind congregants of the 40 years the Jews spent wandering the desert in biblical times and also to pay homage to their Portuguese ancestors who, before finding refuge from the Inquisition in Holland, used sand to muffle the sounds of sacred prayers and songs.” There was a sense of peace as we quietly moved throughout the historical building. My favorite picture is Mom signing the visitor’s book.
Afterward, we mosied over to the museum. We spent a long time studying the historical timeline outside the museum. We all learned so much from that alone. Inside, there were many artifacts that have been donated to the synagogue from various people. It was an amazing spiritual learning experience.
Smithsonian Magazine. (2020). Why Sand Covers the Floor of One of the Western Hemisphere’s Oldest Synagogues. [online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Caribbean-synagogue-sand-floor-180963581/ [Accessed 12 Jan. 2020].