Discovering Jewish Roots on Caribbean Soil

When Lisa Hock’s son Corey was about to turn 13 and she began looking for an alternative to the routine and occasional excess of banquet-hall bar mitzvahs in Toronto, her hometown, she hardly imagined that he would end up reciting the blessings while shuffling through sand on a Caribbean island.

But Corey wasn’t on the beach; his bar mitzvah took place at the United Netherlands Portuguese Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel in Willemstad, Curacao, the island north of Venezuela that is an autonomous part of the Netherlands and home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. There, the blanket of soft white sand that coats the floor commemorates the clandestine means by which forcefully Christianized Jews in Inquisition-era Spain and Portugal continued to conduct Jewish prayers.

In choosing Curacao, Ms. Hock joined a growing number of North American Jewish tourists flocking to some Caribbean islands partly for their Jewish histories and the vibrant Jewish communities active there today. The increasing fashion for destination ”life-cycle events” like weddings and bnai mitzvah (which refers to both boys and girls) has encouraged the trend. As niche-market operators have refined on-the-go accommodation of religious requirements, the Caribbean has also become a popular destination for kosher holiday tours, particularly for Passover.

”We weren’t interested in a traditional service, and then the luncheon, the big party,” Ms. Hock, a lawyer, said. ”We wanted to expose Corey to a different part of the world because we thought it would have more meaning that way, but we weren’t comfortable going to Israel. It was so beautiful, we were in tears — the sand on the floor, the open windows with the sun beaming in. We just wouldn’t have felt the same way in Toronto, where our congregation is one of the largest in the city. It was so intimate there. Corey will never forget it.”

Julie Borish’s daughter Isabel celebrated her bat mitzvah at the Curacao synagogue last March. ”I’m not that observant, but the walls speak to you,” Ms. Borish said. ”I mean, my daughter used a Torah that is one of the three oldest in the world, from 1320. Isabel didn’t even want a bat mitzvah, but after 45 bar and bat mitzvahs in New York, from Tavern on the Green to the Pierre, she decided hers was the best.”

The maize-colored synagogue, which was consecrated in 1732 and is modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, stands behind a wall. Inside, a tiled courtyard leads to a soaring room with azure stained-glass windows and a mahogany ark.

”It’s a shrine, in the Jewish sense,” Rabbi Gerald Zelermyer, the American-born spiritual leader of the congregation since 2002, said. (There is a smaller Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek, on the island as well, attended mainly by Ashkenazi Jews, who descend from Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.) Rabbi Zelermyer estimates that tourists, most of whom are American, outnumber community regulars two to one during Friday night services during the tourist season. He believes that the persistence of Jewish life on a remote island that helped introduce Jewry to the Western Hemisphere summons unique feelings of spirituality among Jewish visitors, however unobservant.

”When the cruise ship people come to the synagogue, I see them mouthing prayers to themselves, assuming a very worshipful posture,” Rabbi Zelermyer said. ”I was eavesdropping on this one conversation where a woman said, ‘I’d like to come to Friday night services here,’ and her son said, ‘Why, you don’t even belong to a synagogue in the U.S.’ And she just looked at him and said, ‘This is different.”’

Bernice Kaufman, a Houston retiree, has visited the Curacao synagogue. ”There are members of the congregation who trace their roots to the 1700’s,” she said. ”I’m of Ashkenazi descent. My history in America begins in the 1920’s, when my mother came from the shtetl to the United States. The experience of Jews in the Caribbean has been so different.”

Subjected to forced conversion and the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews sought refuge among the relatively tolerant Dutch and on their even more liberal island outpost in the Caribbean, which Holland seized from Spain in 1634. Jews settled on Curacao in 1651, three years before the first Jews reached America. They dominated the island’s shipping and trade, and by the 18th century formed more than half of Curacao’s white population.

The community grew so wealthy that its contributions sustained fledgling Jewish communities in Colonial America. To this day, Yom Kippur services at Shearith Israel, a Sephardic synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the oldest congregation in the United States, features a special prayer of gratitude to the Curacao community.

”It’s a powerful lesson, which I try to give to every kid who celebrates a bar or bat mitzvah here,” said Rabbi Arthur Starr, a transplant from New Hampshire who is the leader of the Congregation of Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, which in 1996 celebrated its 200th anniversary.

The St. Thomas community also originated with fleeing Sephardim, and the synagogue likewise features a sand floor to symbolize its covert preservation of the Jewish faith back home. ”They risked their lives to keep Judaism alive so you could have it, I tell them. When putting a statue of the Madonna by the front door of their house, they’d hollow out the bottom of the foot to put a mezuza there, so that when they kissed the Virgin Mary, they were really kissing the mezuza.”

Rabbi Starr performed twice as many bnai mitzvah in 2004 as the year before, and at least 60 weddings since his arrival in the summer of 2002, most among the crystal chandeliers, mahogany pews and brass candelabra of the synagogue, whose fixtures mainly date to its last reconstruction, in 1833.

”I’ve done more weddings here in two and a half years than in 31 years in New Hampshire,” he said. He is already receiving calls for life-cycle events in 2008.

On Curacao, the tourism authorities have noticed the trend, and have been promoting the destination within the American Jewish community. Though there are no figures on the travel of American Jews to the Caribbean, Joel Grossman, the director of the Curacao Tourist Board’s United States branch, estimated that nearly 15 percent of American tourists to Curacao were Jewish, and that their numbers had kept pace with a general rise in American travel to the island, which had increased by about 20 percent since 2002, to some 45,000 visitors a year. Gigi Scheper, who directs a Jewish heritage tour through Willemstad for a company called Taber Tours, said the number of participants had more than doubled in 2004.

”Probably 20 percent of the informational calls we get are American Jewish tourists looking to find out about Jewish aspects of a trip to Curacao,” Mr. Grossman said. The office has been working with such theme-travel operators as Kosher Expeditions, based in Atlanta, which will inaugurate a Curacao trip in August, though the scarcity of kosher food on the island means the company has to take along a chef and a mashgiach, the religious figure who certifies kosher food.

Though some operators of kosher holiday tours tend to choose Caribbean destinations because of the warm weather, the Jewish heritage of some of the islands enhances the religious experience.

”You’re in a place where you don’t expect to find Jewish history,” said Stanley Bernstein, a New York lawyer who has taken Passover trips to Aruba eight times with Presidential Kosher Holidays, which schedules a tour of Jewish sites on the island, as well as a day trip to Curacao. ”It allows you to connect.”

Heightened Jewish interest in the islands, however, can be a little overwhelming. For instance, until several years ago, the Curacao Jewish community, wary of trivializing its birthright, resisted requests for use of the synagogue by those outside the congregation. Even now, it requires that certain aspects of life-cycle ceremonies reflect Sephardic practice. At weddings, a glass must be pitched by the bridegroom into a large silver tray rather than crushed underfoot, which is the typical Ashkenazi Jewish practice; bnai mitzvah must chant the Torah in a tone and rhythm particular to Sephardic Jews.

”It’s always been our congregation; we’re not renting out the space,” René Maduro, a past president of the congregation and the descendant of one of Curacao’s early Jewish families, said. ”If you want to do it, you have to do it according to our customs.”

On St. Thomas, Rabbi Starr is similarly stringent. He does not officiate at interfaith weddings and will not perform a life-cycle ceremony unless the celebrant belongs to a synagogue back home.

Steve Gottlieb, a mortgage loan officer in Smithtown, on Long Island, whose son, Jeremy, was bar mitzvahed on Curacao, said his son was obliged to produce monthly progress reports on his Hebrew recitation, adding that the degree of devotion only made the experience more meaningful. As for the ceremony, Mr. Gottlieb said, ”It was so overwhelming. It felt like you were walking through time.”

And Jeremy’s reaction?

”He wants to get married there,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

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