“It is difficult to convey the emotions that overcome us when inserting the large brass key into the lock plate of the front door and turning it twice to the right. We feel the large mahogany doors swing open slowly, allowing us to pass from the tumult of everyday life into peaceful twilight of the sanctuary… Although the building has gone through several major changes in its 275- year history, this feeling must have overcome our forefathers when they entered the building for its dedication…" From the pamphlet created honor of the 275th anniversary.
Standing in this fascinating world created by our Sephardic forefathers, one is overwhelmed by the sacred “old world” mysticism of our SNOA, which makes it so unlike so many other synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. This feeling is magnified manifold when the interior of the synagogue is aglow with the warm, shimmering lights of one hundred and forty-four candles mirrored many times over in the gleaming brass and silver ornaments of this, our ancient Snoa.”
During the week of April 16-20, 2007, Congregation Mikveh Israel-Emanuel of the Caribbean island of Curacao celebrated the 275th year of their synagogue’s dedication. Affectionately called “Snoa” the synagogue is the hub of Jewish life on the island. The Snoa was beautifully restored and made ready for this momentous occasion. It was on erev Pesah 275 years ago that this three-story synagogue and multi-use compound was dedicated. The original congregants were Sephardic Jews that helped establish the bustling community of the deep-water port in Willemstad, Curacao. These Jews built their synagogue in the Dutch style with three bell-hipped roofs, bright yellow exterior and an interior lush with mahogany, brass chandeliers and white sand floors.
Not only is the building an architectural masterpiece it houses a spiritual dimension of great import. The original members carried with them Torah scrolls from pre-1492 Spain, their oldest scroll dates from 1320. The sand floors commemorate the efforts of the hidden Jews in the Iberian Peninsula’s efforts to practice Judaism in secret silence and the exile in the desert of the Israelites. They named their congregation Mikveh Israel or the Hope of Israel in these new lands. Their museum showcases the vibrant life of the Sephardic Culture on the island for almost 300 years.
Originally, the Jews were Sephardic Orthodox, but today the congregation is part of the Reconstructionist Movement. Like many of our North American shuls their congregation experienced a rift in the 1800’s and a group broke off to form a Reform Temple. In 1964 the two congregations were joined under the Reconstuctionist mantle. We attended erev Shabbat services and were quite moved by the experience of chanting from the Kol Ha Nishama sidur on an island 35 miles from the coast of Venezuela. Also impressive was the ark opening, which showcased 14 sifrei torah scrolls in a four panel mahogany ark.
The Jews of Curacao were only on the island 12 years when they set out to build their Snoa. Like many of our modern day congregations in the midst of building campaigns they met their starting costs for construction, but ran into considerable cost overruns! To make the final payments, four families contributed bases for the four pillars that support the structure. These glorious pillars represent the four matriarchs of the Jewish people, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael and Leah and all the women of the congregation that were their strength. The interior design of the Snoa was modeled on the main Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam. The building was dedicated the 15th of Nisan 5492, the first day of Passover, 1732, making it the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas.
The celebration week opened with a Commemorative Service and a keynote address from Rabbi Avraham Soetendrop, of LJG The Hague, The Netherlands. The following day the restoration and architecture of the Snoa was celebrated at the Curacao Maritime Museum by two special exhibitions. First was an original Art Showing by island artists. The island’s spirit of religious tolerance and openness was quite evident. In fact many of the artists were not Jewish, some were Dutch nationals and one was even Polish. Second was a tour of the architectural renderings of the Snoa structures and restorations and its cultural contributions to Curacao, which is a special exhibit at the Maritime Museum.
The celebration continued on Wednesday with a Snoa concert featuring three Hazzanim, Avery Tracht, Faith Steisnyder and David Perper. More than 500 tickets were sold and the attendees were treated to a glimpse of the SNOA in its full splendor. The 144 candles in the chandeliers were lit giving the sanctuary a warm glow and asked the concertgoers to dream of being in services 275 years ago. Needless to say the mood and the music were magnificent.
The final event of the celebratory week was a panel on Snoa architecture around the world featuring Dr. Bernard Buddingh of Curacao, Joel Cahen from the Netherlands and Rabbi Simeon Maslin. All the events were well attended by congregants and fellow Curacaoians. One could feel the Snoa’s place in history and see the connection to Judaism in the Americas.
By Ruth Wenger & Jonathan Markowitz