DECEMBER 13, 2018, SALEM – A few years ago, atop the sand floor of the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas, Larry Salas posed with a copy of the Jewish Journal.
Salas, who lives in Salem and was on the Journal Board of Overseers at the time, was participating in a feature called “Globetrotters,” in which Journal devotees photographed themselves holding the paper in locations across the globe. Salas brought the Journal to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad on the Dutch island of Curaçao, where family members had belonged for centuries.
“It reminds you of Amsterdam – it’s got the gables, it’s painted very bright yellow, and it’s got beautiful mahogany pews, and a mahogany bimah and ark,” said Salas of his famous childhood shul, which is one of the Caribbean island’s top tourist attractions. “Its selling point is it’s the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.”
The current synagogue structure was built in 1730, but the synagogue itself was founded in 1674 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews arriving from the Netherlands and Dutch colonies in Brazil, which is why the building is crowned by Dutch gables reminiscent of Amsterdam. The synagogue was formed not long after Dutch colonists began arriving in Curaçao, a small island in the southern Caribbean about 40 miles north of Venezuela. Sephardic Jews who had settled in Amsterdam after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal became prosperous merchants who played an active role in expanding the burgeoning empire of their adopted country. Salas’s ancestors were among these Jews.
“In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews were a significant part of the total population,” said Salas. “They became the commercial class that helped the island bloom.”
Later, Curaçao’s Jewish population grew when Ashkenazis who had survived the Holocaust arrived from Eastern Europe.
Salas, 58, grew up in Willemstad, the capital city his ancestors helped build, full of Dutch-style buildings painted bright, tropical colors. His father owned a store that sold books, stationery, and school supplies. Even though Jews had once formed a significant proportion of the island’s population, the number had dwindled to a small fraction by the mid-20th century.
Salas remembers a close-knit community centered around the synagogue, which had recently become Reconstructionist in a 1964 merger with a Reform temple. “I had a very happy childhood,” Salas said. “Growing up I went to Hebrew school, and all the festivals were celebrated here … the synagogue was really a central place. There was no feeling that we were being treated differently because we were Jewish.”
Instead, conflict was about race. Salas experienced firsthand the tensions that gripped the island in the 1960s as the Afro-Caribbean population – which made up the majority of Curaçao’s residents – fought to gain political representation, which it achieved by the end of the decade. Jews were viewed among the white oppressors.
“In the ’60s, the vocabulary was about capitalism and communism, and we would be singled out as the capitalist Jews. It made for uncomfortable situations,” said Salas.
Partly due to a changing political climate, many of Salas’s peers went to college in the United States or in the Netherlands and never returned. As a result, the Jewish population is only about 350 among of an overall population of roughly 150,000. Most recently, Chabad has opened a center on the island.
Salas decided to attend Brandeis University, where his brother and cousin had studied. His brother, Pito Salas, is an associate professor in computer science at Brandeis, and his cousin, Ben Gomes-Casseres, is a professor of international business there.
Salas studied computer science and economics at Brandeis, and returned to Curaçao after graduating to work at his father’s business. After it folded in 1999, Salas moved back to Boston, where he now works as a translator and interpreter. That comes easily to many Curaçaoans, who speak English, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiamento, a creole language of the Dutch Caribbean.
He eventually settled in Salem, where he and his wife, Kathleen, have two children. In 2010, he joined the Board of Overseers of the Journal to reconnect with his Jewish heritage, and remained a member until 2015.
Salas returns to Curaçao twice a year, which he appreciates in the colder months. “I love Salem, but right now I’m lying on my couch with my light bank shining on me,” he said.