One of the highlights of our first visit to Willemstad was the Jewish synagogue, known to its members as the Snoa. The congregation was founded in 1651, making it the oldest continuous Jewish congregation in the western hemisphere. The synagogue was dedicated in 1732, which makes it the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the New World. It has a small but very interesting museum.
The congregation was originally named Mikvé Israel. In the 1860’s, a part of the congregation split off to found the Reform Judaism congregation Temple Emanu-El. This was, at the time, the only Sephardic Reform congregation in the world. The two congregations reunited in 1964, and formed congregation Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel. We understand there is also a small Ashkenazi congregation on the island.
The synagogue is unusual, in that it has a sand floor. This is reminiscent of synagogues in use during the 40 years the Jews spent wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. It is also a reminder of the days when the ancestors of the congregants were secret Jews, practicing illegally in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. The worshipers put sand on the floors of the secret rooms where they worshiped, to muffle the sounds during services.
In the museum are many interesting artifacts. Maybe the most remarkable is the ancient Torah that was made in 1320. Amazing that it is still legible after almost 700 years, and a trip across the Atlantic.