Jewish Heritage of Curacao
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.
The final part of your excursion will end with a drive through the old Jewish neighborhood of Scharloo. Make a stop at a synagogue for an up-close look at religious life in Curacao. The Jewish faith has been practiced here without interruption since 1732 and one congregation itself is even older, having been established in 1651. The very fear of persecution is what 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 synagogues nearly a century later.
Reviewer: Heidi and Stan
We met our guide at the port area...very easy to find and ladies were so nice. Our guide was Jude and he was such a wealth of knowledge about Curaçao, all the history and definitely the Jewish History. Visited Jewish cemetery, historical home, museum highlighting the Jewish presence on the island from hundred years ago to the present. But visiting the Synagogue and it’s museum was the best. Curaçao liqueur distillery was definitely a plus and learning why it is Kosher was very interesting. We would recommend wholeheartedly.
Reviewer: David Singer
Our driver, Ralph, greeted us with "Sholom Aleichem" (there were only three of us on the tour). We began at the old Beit Haim cemetery near the refinery; Ralph told us the history of the cemetery and the Jewish community on Curacao. Our second stop was the Mongui Maduro House, Library, and Museum, where we met a curator and a librarian who filled us in on more of the history. Then we went to the newer Ashkenazi synagogue (Shaarei Tsedek - modern Orthodox); the young, energetic Rabbi greeted us as if we were long-lost cousins! From there, we went to the Curacao Distillery (founded by the Senior family, who were Jewish, so it's kosher (as is the liquor)) for a short self-guided tour and tasting. We ended at Mikve Israel - Emmanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, for another self-guided tour (including the museum). Ralph pointed out other landmarks along the way and made our visit informative and enjoyable. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: M Miller
I would have liked to give this tour 5 stars but cannot due to the transportation complications. The tour was excellent and the tour guide was extremely well-versed in each tour stop as well as the island. We expected an air-conditioned bus and were met with a not-well-air-conditioned van. When the driver asked for a replacement, the 2nd van had a tire under the back seat and limited seating. We then returned to the original van. The driver and tour guide extended the time due to the delays from the transportation, which we appreciated.
Reviewer: Nancy Poland
This is an informative tour. Out guide was a university professor, and had a Jewish heritage. He brought us to many intereting sites, was very knowledgeable regarding the history of Jewish people in Curacao, and the island in general. There were only seven people on our tour, and we enjoyed seeing this beautiful island with our small group. Whether or not you are Jewish, I highly recommend this tour.
This half-day tour was the highlight of my trip. The tour operator was extremely knowledgeable and personable, plus his grandmother had been Jewish. There were only 8 of us on the tour, which really made it special. We toured an old cemetery, the oldest continually operating synagogue in the New World, a home that is now a museum, and the curaçao liqueur factory. I had no idea that Sephardic Jewish settlers had had such an important role in the development of Curacao. I hope this tour will continue operating.