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23 Oct 2008

Jewish Curacao

Jews have lived in Curacao for over 350 years.  The community peaked in 1800 with over 2,000 Jews living on the island, many of them slave-owners who ran large sugar plantations.  Today, the population has dwindled to about 450.

Consecrated on the eve of Passover in 1732, Curacao is also home to the oldest extant synagogue in the New World.  The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue covers about a square block, right in the heart of Willemstad, and is a fine example of Dutch architecture. 

Of special interest in the synagogue is the sand floor.  Today the sand is imported from Suriname or Guyana, though historically it had been mixed with sand from Israel.  It must come from riverbeds (not the ocean) to prevent salt corrosion of the mahogany furniture.

Some say the sand represents the Sinai Desert where the Israelites wondered for 40 years when passing from slavery to freedom.  Others attribute the sand to traditions from the Inquisition, when sand covered floors in synagogues (in Spain and Portugal) to muffle footsteps of Jews worshipping in secret.  Either way, its no wonder it is Curacao’s number one tourist attraction and a must see.

Synagogue-Sand floor