Willemstad, Curaçao — More than a few old Jewish cemeteries are located in down-and-out corners of decaying urban areas. The four-centuries old Beth Haim Cemetery here is different. It’s in an out-of-the-way part of town, to be sure, but more to the point is that it abuts a century-old oil refinery.
As a result, Beth Haim, the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1659, shortly after the first Jews arrived on this Caribbean island, is decaying.
The 2,500 souls interred here have for decades been represented by nameless, faceless slabs erased by pollution. Members of the local Jewish community say there’s not much anyone can do about it.
The pollution-induced decay, abetted by the naturally salty environment of the Dutch-related island 40 miles north of Venezuela, forced the Jewish community here to mostly stop using the site, supplanting it with a cemetery in another part of Willemstad.
While the markings on Beth Haim’s graves may be lost, an accounting of those buried there lives on, thanks to the work between 1939 and 1941 of Rabbi Isaac S. Emmanuel, who meticiously documented each grave and published his findings in 1957, in a book titled “Precious stones of the Jews of Curaçao.”
While the Jewish community here is small — it’s now said to number around 400 people — it is proud of its history, which includes helping to fund the first synagogue in North America, Touro in Rhode Island. One of the island’s leading tourist attractions is Mikvé Israel, the oldest continuously operated synagogue in the Western Hemesphere. And, yes, there’s also an Orthodox shul, led by a young Chabad shaliach.