Curacao holds the dubious distinction of being the major slave port in the Americas in the 17th and 18th century, a hub from which more than a half million enslaved Africans were sold on the docks and shipped to plantations in North and South America. Curacao also played a pivotal role in another major movement of people from one part of the world to another, one that offered opportunity rather than oppression.
In 1651, Curacao's Jewish Congregation was founded by twelve Sephardic families who came to the island seeking the freedom to practice their faith, as well as pursue economic possibilities. The Sephardic Jews fled Portugal with the entrance of the Inquisition, and by coincidence, the Low Countries - now The Netherlands and Belgium - had around that same time won their 80-Years War against Spain and Catholicism by defeating the Spanish Armada. Being liberated from the Catholic kings subsequently allowed them to open their borders to non-Catholics. They assured the Jews that they would respect their desire for freedom of worship which had been forbidden by the Catholic kings. The Jews that settled in the Low Countries, primarily in Amsterdam, were then sought out when the Dutch West Indies Company recruited colonists to settle on Curacao, many of the Sephardim followed the Dutch flag as this guaranteed them religious freedom.
Today in Curacao there are two Jewish congregations: the Sephardim, who practice reconstruction Judaism, and the Ashkenazim, who practice modern orthodox or traditional Judaism.
Your first stop is the Beth Haim Jewish cemetery, consecrated in 1659, it is the oldest Caucasian cemetery on the island and in the Western Hemisphere. The site is also a Curacao National Monument.
Then you will visit another historic site also created as a peaceful sanctuary, the Rooi Catootje plantation house. It dates to about 1820 and was originally known as "Rust en Vrede," which translates as "Rest and Peace." The house has been the property of the Maduro family since 1853, when S.E.L. Maduro brought it as a gift to his wife Rebecca Curiel from her parent's estate. The house has now been preserved as a museum.
Continue to the 17th-century plantation house Chobolobo, owned by a Jewish family, where Curacao liquor is produced. Tour the house and learn more about the family name and history. Before leaving take the opportunity to enjoy samples of this famous local product.
Next you continue with a drive through the old Jewish neighborhood of Scharloo. Stop at the Mikveh Israel Emanuel synagogue, or the Snoa as it is affectionately known locally, rests on exceptionally hallowed ground. The Jewish faith has been practiced here without interruption since 1732. The congregation itself is even older, having been established in 1651. It was just this very fear of persecution that drove many of Curacao's earliest Jewish residents to relocate to the island in the first place. They were rightfully more than a little guarded about their beliefs, even upon founding their congregation and building their synagogue nearly a century later. That's one of the main reasons why you'll find a sand floor in the Snoa today. The floor pays homage to those earliest Jewish settlers in Curacao who had to muffle the sounds of their footsteps and prayers when meeting in secret during the Spanish Inquisition.
The excursions offered by the cruise line were similar on most of the Islands - all sounded boring. We heard about the Jewish Heritage tour about 2 weeks before the cruise and signed up for it immediately. There were just the two of us and the tour was via taxi. The driver/guide, Ralph was excellent. He was able to answer all of our questions. A large oil refinery is located next to the old cemetery and has causes a lot of erosion but you can still read dates from the 1700's. The new cemetery is in much better shape and goes back to the early 1800s. It was nice to do the Liqueur company as part of a private tour rather than part of a bus load. We didn't realize that Curacao Liqueur is Kosher. The highlight of the tour was the old museum where they had a Torah written in 1320 in Spain and smuggled out just before Isabella came to power. We would definitely recommend this tour
Reviewer: Stephanie Whitson
We very much enjoyed this view of Curacao, which gave a look at life for Jews hoping to find a safe haven. The guide and driver were very kind and informative, and we particularly loved the beautiful Sephardic synagogue with the sand floor. Also enjoyed the testing of blue Curacao liquor.
Reviewer: Dianne Kliebl
Our Jewish Heritage tour was delightful. Our guide provided us with a wealth of information and was a very pleasant person to converse with. His taxi was very clean and comfortable and he provided ice cold water and a lot of historical information about the Island. We would be happy to recommend this tour to others.
Reviewer: Len Saffren
Speaking as someone who has had the opportunity to do lot of leisure travel, I would say that this was one of the best tours I've ever taken. The tour guide, Julius, was extremely knowledgeable and respectful of the Jewish traditions. Learning the influence that Jews had on this island was fascinating. I highly recommend this tour.
Reviewer: Caren Walter
We began our tour experience on the dock when Rosie, our very able and friendly driver, met us at the pier. We were joined by Julius who is a fantastic guide and extremely personable and knowledgeable about the Jewish History of the island. We began by visiting a distillery with a definite Jewish background and continued on to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere. We continued on to the Jewish Library, the newer Jewish cemetery and ended our tour at Mikve Israel Synagogue and museum. We were taken back to the pier. We were a group of six on the tour and the small group made our experience very enjoyable. All questions were answered and Julius was a wealth of knowledge. The tour was well organized and I would happily book it again. Visited February 2017