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Historic Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curacao welcomes Rosh Hashanah

Si Liberman, For The Inquirer


Age, a sand floor, and a powerful 150-year-old pipe organ - a gift from the government of the Netherlands - are what distinguish Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continuously operated synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a major tourist attraction.

With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (year 5777 on the Hebrew calendar), it will come alive with worshipers just as it has on Jewish holidays and weekends since 1730.

Last spring, from where our cruise ship docked, it was a 10-minute walk for my wife and me across a pedestrian bridge and into town.

The stately, lemon-color, 284-year-old synagogue occupies half a block in the heart of downtown Willemstad, capital of the Netherlands Antilles and its commercial hub. It was built in the early 1700s, mostly by Sephardic Jews who fled 16th- and 17th-century persecution in Europe. More than 2,000 of them ultimately found refuge here.

Today, they number fewer than 300 of this Caribbean island's 155,000 residents, own a couple dozen of the 1,000 or so Curaçao businesses, and hold no government posts, according to Avery Tracht, the Ohio-born, 63-year-old cantor who has served as the synagogue's spiritual leader since 2005. He was trained at Hebrew Union College, which has facilities in New York, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem.

Many young people leave the island to pursue higher education and more diverse financial opportunities in other countries, Tracht said. "Curaçao has never known any large anti-Semitism; maybe a single incident here or there, but in general not really a problem at all," he added.

Most island residents are Catholic, but you'll find Protestant, Muslim, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, and Methodist houses of worship here, as well.

Read the full article, originally published October 1, 2016, on philly.com.