CARIBBEAN - THE JEWS OF THE ARUBA ____________________________
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF ARUBA, AN IDYLLIC ISLAND IN THE SUN PLUS61J Articles, Alan Hartstein, December 13, 2016
The former Dutch colony of Aruba in the Caribbean isn’t somewhere one would immediately associate with a Jewish Diaspora community. Located about 1600km from the Lesser Antilles and 29km off the coast of Venezuela, it is one of four countries that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands (the others being The Netherlands, Curaçao and Sint Maarten), measures 32km from its northwestern to its southeastern end and is 10km across at its widest point. Together with Bonaire and Curaçao, Aruba forms a group referred to as the ABC islands.
Aruba may also be recognisable as one of the places mentioned in the Beach Boys’ song Kokomo and is usually the team that precedes Australia in the athletes’ march at Olympic opening ceremonies, in case that question ever arises at a pub trivia night.
Aruba had a total population of 102,484 at the 2010 Census and has so far postponed full independence from The Netherlands despite constant mutterings on the subject.
Long Jewish history
The Caribbean is actually home to some of the oldest Jewish communities in that part of the world, dating back to the 1600s. The first Jewish immigrants to Aruba were Sephardi groups from the Netherlands and Portugal and the first Jew to officially settle on the island was a Portuguese-Jewish worker for the Dutch West Indies Company, Moses Solomon Levie Maduro, who arrived with his family in 1754, where they remained until 1816. Maduro had come from a prominent Portugese Jewish family in nearby Curacao and after his arrival several other European families moved to Aruba.
By 1867, there were 23 Jews living on the island and while the population grew over the years it remained difficult to establish any organised communal groups.
There is an Old Jewish Cemetery in the capital Oranjestad which contains eight gravestones, the oldest of which dates back to 1563, and these are the main evidence of the earliest Jewish presence on the island.
In 1942, the community created the Jewish Country Club on Palm Beach for use in events such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs and by 1946 it was officially recognised as a centre for worship, Hebrew school, and social events.
On 1 December 1956, the Dutch Kingdom officially recognised the Jewish community of Aruba and the Beth Israel Synagogue was consecrated on 4 November 1962 in Oranjestad. Beth Israel also shares the synagogue with the Jewish Community (Israelitische Gemeente) of Aruba.
And the Prime Minister’s Jewish
The Jewish population of the island is about 85, though there are also 180 overseas community members and the constant influx of tourists means there are usually enough congregants for both Chabad and liberal congregations at any one time.
Prime Minister Mike Eman, the country’s fifth since gaining constitutional independence from the Netherlands in 1986, is Jewish and takes an active role in the community. His brother Henny Eman was Aruba’s first Prime Minister from 1986 to 1989 and again from 1994 to 2001.
The Community is led by Rabbi Daniel Kripper, a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America. Ordained at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary Marshall T. Meyer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he has served as rabbi and chaplain at Jewish congregations both in Latin America and the United States and has been deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue, serving as consultant for international interfaith organisations.
Speaking to Plus61J, Rabbi Kripper said the community consists mostly of immigrants who arrived in Aruba from many different parts of the world. “After 1924, a group of Eastern European Jews, mostly from Poland, settled here, together with Jews from Holland and Sephardic families from the previously Dutch South American colony of Surinam,” he said.
He says the population has remained reasonably stable over the years, but there is a constant flow of tourists who visit the community and join in religious functions such as Kabbalat Shabbat and the Passover Seder. The community also has a strong identification with Israel, Rabbi Kripper said. “Our past President is the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel.”
Apart from regular services, including for Havdalah, the community offers several ongoing programmes/projects throughout the year such as: The Continuing Education program which includes classes in Hebrew, the Talmud and Kabbalah, Project Yitro, which teaches and encourages people to light Shabbat candles at home, and Project Hosea, which studies the traditions of Talit, Tefilin and Mezuzah.
“We also have a monthly movie night about a Jewish or Israeli topic, followed by a discussion,
a monthly Shabbat potluck dinner after the service, and social action programmes such as High Holiday food and clothing drives,” he said.
The community is also actively engaged in environmental causes such as Project Genesis, where volunteers take part in cleaning beaches and planting trees.
Keeping kosher is even possible thanks to the regular number of flights to and from the island. “We can also get most things in the supermarkets here, including Hebrew National products,” he said.
Besides the Caribbean sun, another drawcard for Aruba and Curacao, which now has a thriving Jewish community of over 450, is the general absence of antisemitism. Rabbi Kripper said Aruba’s population is made up of people from the most diverse ethnic origins who live together in harmony. “The people of Aruba are extremely welcoming and friendly towards everyone, including foreigners and visitors. Antisemitism is not known on the island.”