By Justin Leader
It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill alternative break as 15 members of Cornell Hillel’s Jewish scuba club, Scubi Jew, recently ventured to the southern-most point in the Caribbean to the island of Curacao for a fantastic program of Jewish heritage and scuba diving.
Curacao is known throughout the world for its wonderful scuba diving, but many visitors don’t realize that it is also home to the first Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere with many spots of interest to visiting Jews. The Scubi Jew group visited the Jewish cemetery on the island, which was established in the mid-1600s and is well-maintained today despite the corrosive salt air and fumes from the nearby oil refinery. Among the engravings on the tombstones of the tree of life and the angel of death, we saw many depictions of skull and crossbones. It was the custom of the early Jewish settlers to follow the tradition of their ancestors who were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition and put a skull and crossbones on their tombstones to keep their bodies from being dug up and burned by the Inquisition. We were surprised to learn that not only was this the first Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere but also the first Caucasian cemetery.
Curacao was also the economic center of the Caribbean under the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century and often frequented by pirates and privateers. It turns out the pirates stole their flag, too, from the Jewish cemetery. Before they saw the Jewish tombstones, pirates would customarily fly a black flag. According to our guide, when they saw the Jewish cemetery with its skull and crossbones, they stole the idea and added it to their black flag, and thus the Jolly Roger flag was born.
Our exploration of Jewish history in Curacao also brought us to the Mikveh Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which was built in 1731 and has been in continuous use ever since. Its sand-covered floor led us from the history of the island into the arms of the current Jewish community.
We were welcomed for Shabbat services at the synagogue and Shabbat dinner in the homes of the local Jewish community. We were guests of honor among several happy extended families for Shabbat dinner, including Cornell alumni who live on the island. As our Hillel director told us, we should expect to feel perfectly at home because when you are with fellow Jews, you are with family. He was right. The locals speak Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiemento (a language only spoken in the Netherland Antilles) but kiddush and motzi blessings over the wine and bread, respectively, are always the same. We were at home.
The experience was enriched not only by the Curacaon adults we met on our trip, but by the adults we brought with us. A few of our parents came along and added a family feel to the trip. Even those students who weren’t “theirs” grew to love them during the trip.
Between scuba diving in the pristine Caribbean waters and Jewish learning, it was an experience that none of us will ever forget. We were able to explore our own Jewish identity, find our place in the Jewish world and build a community for ourselves back on campus. And of course, we’re all looking forward to returning to our new friends and family in Curacao.
Justin Leader is a senior at Cornell University.