23 March 2008

Curacao's Jewish history

In the Caribbean, Curacao is home to the oldest synagogue - Mikve Israel - in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere; it was founded in 1651.

A recent Jewish Journal story details the community's history and also touts Mikve Israel as a life-cycle location for bnai mitzvah or weddings. This could be particularly relevant for Sephardic families.

Compared with the millennia of Jewish history, the scant few centuries of Jewish settlement in the Western Hemisphere is like a drop in the ocean those Jews had crossed from Europe. The history of the Jews in the American colonies is even shorter: more than 100 years before the Jews of Newport, R.I., built their synagogue (now the oldest continuously active synagogue in the United States), the Jewish community of the Caribbean island of Curacao had built theirs -- Congregation Mikve Israel, which holds the record as the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

The Jews who settled in Curacao found the religious freedom they craved. Jewish merchants and sailors who worshipped at Mikve Israel spread the religion throughout the West, earning it the title of "Mother Congregation to the New World."

The synagogue complex houses a fascinating museum containing historical documents and artifacts. Yet it is another phenomenon that keeps this venerable place a living legacy: the synagogue's popularity as a venue for destination bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

The Reform-Progressive affiliated congregation has scheduled some 17 bnai mitzva celebrations into 2010 - all from the US and Canada. Mikve Israel's sanctuary features mahogany beams, white sand floor and candelabra chandeliers and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A century prior, Jews had been in Brazil, but the advent of the Inquisition led to its expulsion of the Jews, who migrated to Protestant Dutch colonies, such as Curacao. The Jews from Recife landed here, and another group landed in New Amsterdam later on.

Curacao became one of the New World's wealthiest commercial centers. The city of Willemstad was key to trade linking Europe, Africa and America. At one point, Jews were 50% of the island's European population, and they built synagogues and a cemetery. The Beit Haim Blenheim is estimated to hold more than 5,000 graves - 2,500 from the 17th-18th centuries) and was consecrated in 1659; the oldest recognizable gravestone is Judit Nunes da Fonseca in 1668(?).

Mikve Israel's website is very informative and offers many photographs of artifacts. Here is a small section; I have bolded the referenced family names.


It was from Amsterdam’s well-spring of the Jewish renaissance that one Joao d'Yllan petitioned the Dutch West India Company to bring a company of settlers to colonize Curaçao. He was born in Portugal, had been denounced there for “Judaizing”, was now established in Amsterdam and engaged in commerce with relatives in Brazil. He was a good and prosperous member of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam and had a brother who was a colonel in the Dutch colonial army. He promised to bring fifty families, but succeeded in recruiting no more than twelve. They set sail for Curaçao in the summer of 1651.

If the roots of these settlers were Spanish and Portuguese, so were their names. One historian lists them as being: Aboab, Aboab Cardozo, Chaves, Henriquez Continho, Jesurun, De León, Marchena, De Meza, Oliveria, La Parra, Pereira and Touro. They were not the only ones. Several independent Jewish businessmen from Amsterdam followed and- some claim- even preceded them. In fact, the very first Jew to set foot and establish himself on Curaçao was one Samuel Coheno, an interpreter, pilot, and Indian guide to Johan van Walbeeck, the Dutch naval commander who took Curaçao from the Spanish in 1634. Samuel Coheno was appointed Chief Steward of the native Indian population and certainly stayed on Curaçao until 1641. But it is the d’Yllan group who, in the words of our foremost historians Isaac and Suzanne Emmanuel, surely improvised a Synagogue out of a small house in 1651 and that first house of worship probably stood in the fields where the colonists toiled.

If the exact date of its founding is lost in history, there can be no doubt about its existence. In a letter in Spanish, Ishack Rodrigues Cunha, while away from Curaçao, addresses himself “to the illustrious Gentlemen the MAHAMAD of the Holy Congregation Mikvé Israel, Curaçao’’. The date of the letter was the 2nd of Heshvan 5415 (Oct. 13, 1654).

The website features detailed sections on the congregation's history, architecture and artifacts.

Of the 17 Torah scrolls in the Heichal (Sephardic name for the Aron HaKodesh, which holds scrolls); two date to the pre-Inquisition times. According to the website, at least 20 scrolls have been donated over the course of the congregation's history as gifts from David Mordechay de Castro, Jacob de Benjamin Fidanque, David de Mordechay Senior, Aaron da Costa Gomez, Benjamin de Casseres, Jacob de Abraham de Andrade, Isaac Haim Rodriguez da Costa, Jacob Namias de Crasto, Samuel de Joseph da Costa Gomez, Benjamin Lopez Henriquez, Abraham and Ribca Jeudah Leao, Isaac de Jacob Leao, Abraham de Marchena, Moseh de Marchena, David de Mordechay Senior, and Jacob de Sola. Donors of other ritual items are David Lopez Laguna, Samuel de Joseph da Costa Gomez, Jacob Hisquiau Arid, Samuel Hoheb and David Jessurun.

Click links above for the story and the congregation for more information.


  1. Anonymous5:18 PM

    I've been to Mikve Israel in Curacao.
    I would like to see some photos.
    thank you,

  2. Hi, rir,

    For all sorts of information and pictures about the congregation and Curacao's Jewish community, go to http://www.snoa.com


  3. Anonymous7:51 AM

    Shalom: Would it be possible to obtain biographical info of Joseph da Costa Gomez
    Aaron da Costa Gomez
    from Curazao?

    Thank you

  4. Anonymous4:20 PM

    I am looking for information regarding a Jewish family that came from Denmark in the 1870's to grow furits and vegetables on a plantation to ship back to Denmark. How can I learn more about them?