Viewing history from the inside out

students document every cornice and crevice of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue

Viewing history from the inside out

UM architecture students document one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas and pilot a project to record the Caribbean’s rich Jewish heritage.
UM architecture students document one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas and pilot a project to record the Caribbean’s rich Jewish heritage.
by MAYA BELL
UM News
09-13-2018

WILLEMSTAD, Curaçao—The shifting sands inside the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating synagogue posed some unique challenges.

Covering the floors of the sanctuary and the mezzanine, the sand parted with every footfall, making it harder for eight University of Miami School of Architecture students to document every cornice and crevice of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, built nearly 300 years ago by Dutch Jews whose descendants fled the Spanish Inquisition.

“Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Olivia Kramer, a fifth-year student from Minnesota who sketched much of the floor plan of the triple-vaulted building that opened its mahogany doors in 1732. “We’re on hands and knees measuring every inch. We’re double-checking every dimension. I don’t think I’ve ever been so dirty. We leave the synagogue soaked in sweat and with sand in our shoes.’’

Yet Kramer and the other architecture students who spent the first week of the fall semester on this Dutch Caribbean island just north of Venezuela had no complaints. They may not have known exactly what they were getting into when they signed up for Professor Jorge L. Hernández’s elective design studio in historic preservation. But the arduous process of creating the most comprehensive and accurate architectural drawings of the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas was an exhilarating learning experience with innumerable rewards.

Among them was laying the foundation for their school’s proposed collaboration with UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, Center for Computational Science and College of Arts and Sciences to create an architectural and historical record of all the Caribbean’s Jewish synagogues and temples.

“We want to document them one by one, and this is a perfect pilot project and a perfect place to start,” said Haim Shaked, director of the Miller Center. “It is a unique building with a unique history. It was modeled after the main synagogue in Amsterdam, which welcomed Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, and you feel the history when you walk in.”

Added UM’s first lady, Felicia Marie Knaul, whose idea it was for UM to survey the Caribbean’s synagogues: “The Nazis destroyed many of the synagogues in Europe, and we don’t want time or neglect to destroy the places in our hemisphere where Jews found refuge and prospered for centuries.”



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Olivia Kramer, Joshua Kleinberg, Amanda Arrizabalaga, Julia Murdoch, Jack Shao, Daniella Huen, and Hector Valdivia Arrieta. Olivia Kramer, Joshua Kleinberg, Amanda Arrizabalaga, Julia Murdoch, Jack Shao, Daniella Huen, and Hector Valdivia Arrieta.
From front are students Olivia Kramer, Joshua Kleinberg, Amanda Arrizabalaga, Julia Murdoch, Jack Shao, Daniella Huen, and Hector Valdivia Arrieta.
Opened in 1732, the sanctuary still has its original mahogany furniture, candle chandeliers and sand floors. Opened in 1732, the sanctuary still has its original mahogany furniture, candle chandeliers and sand floors.
Opened in 1732, the sanctuary still has its original mahogany furniture, candle chandeliers and sand floors.
Joshua Kleinberg calls out measurements to Olivia Kramer.  Joshua Kleinberg calls out measurements to Olivia Kramer.
Joshua Kleinberg calls out measurements to Olivia Kramer.
Professor Jorge Hernández, center, works on a sketch with Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right. Professor Jorge Hernández, center, works on a sketch with Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right.
Professor Jorge Hernández, center, works on a sketch with Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right.
Lecturer Ricardo Lopez helps Julia Murdoch set the datum line. Lecturer Ricardo Lopez helps Julia Murdoch set the datum line.
Lecturer Ricardo Lopez helps Julia Murdoch set the datum line.
Joshua Kleinberg and Amanda Arrizabalaga measure the space in front of the 19th century organ. Joshua Kleinberg and Amanda Arrizabalaga measure the space in front of the 19th century organ.
Joshua Kleinberg and Amanda Arrizabalaga measure the space in front of the 19th century organ.
Forming the synagogue’s skeleton are three attics where, over the centuries, few people have tread. Forming the synagogue’s skeleton are three attics where, over the centuries, few people have tread.
Forming the synagogue’s skeleton are three attics where, over the centuries, few people have tread.

Divided into a floor plan team and a longitudinal sections team, the students spent six long, hot days measuring and sketching the unair-conditioned space imbued with serenity and history and bathed in cobalt light. The color filtered through dozens of blue stained-glass windows that, depending on the time of day, splashed the sills, the white walls, the mahogany benches and the mysterious, ubiquitous sand with its heavenly hue.

“The simplicity is luminous,” said fourth-year student Hector Valdivia Arrieta, a recent transfer from Peru who would leave Curaçao enamored with his first taste of preservation work. “When the work is tedious you can rest your mind in a place filled with inspiration. Just lie down on the sand floor and look up.”

A symbol of Jewish resilience in the face of relentless persecution, the sand is said to be a reminder of Spanish Jews who muffled the sound of their footsteps when praying in secret during the Inquisition, or of Moses wandering in the desert after leading his people out of slavery in Egypt. But aside from its tranquil, sound-absorbing presence, the uneven sand was a burden for the students responsible for establishing a datum line, the vertical reference point from which all measurements start and on which all architectural drawings depend.

“Nothing physical is perfect and, with time, buildings settle, so that line is a place from which to measure up and down,” Hernández explained on an early Monday morning as the steady buzz of a drone flying outside filtered through the louvered windows. “In a place where the floor is sand, the datum line is ever more important because the floor is ever-more imperfect.”

Guided by Ricardo Lopez, assistant director of the School of Architecture’s Center for Urban and Community Design, who teaches a class on the standards for surveying historic American buildings, the students used lasers, levels, plumb lines, tape measures, string, and even a translucent, flexible tube filled with water to set the perfect line.

Lopez borrowed the simple tool from Santiago, Cuba, where he, Hernández and Associate Professor Carie Penabad led another studio class that documented Santiago’s Church of Santa Lucia. Karen Mathews, assistant professor of art and art history, who researched the synagogue in Curaçao’s archives, also participated in the documentation of the 1701 Catholic church, which is among a dozen that, with the Cuban-born Hernández’s help, were listed as cultural heritage sites by the World Monuments Fund.

“The Cuban water hose is useful for establishing a datum incrementally and allowing us to extend it from the interior to the exterior of the subject building,” Lopez said as he helped students measure the spaces between dozens of windows. “In ancient times they probably used a piece of an animal intestine to do the same thing.”

By late afternoon, a triumphant yell could be heard from the mezzanine, where women congregants were once segregated from the men who sat below on the first level. “Finito!” exulted Daniella Huen, when she and fellow fifth-year student Xiangyu “Jack” Shao and fourth-year Julia Murdoch finally finished establishing the datum line, painstakingly marked with dots on masking tape about five feet above the shifting sands on both floors.

Hidden far above them, up a ladder and through a trap door, Valdivia was exploring the triangles of timbers in the trio of attics after he and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, also a fourth-year student, finished measuring the first of the three haunting spaces where few other people have tread over the centuries.

“The professor told me we’re done but I could stay a while longer,” Valdivia said. “That meant I had the space to myself. I went into every attic. I opened all the windows and took pictures. I even sent a video to my mom and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I am standing.’ ”

Professor Jorge Hernández points out attic features to Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right. Professor Jorge Hernández points out attic features to Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right.
Professor Jorge Hernández points out attic features to Hector Valdivia Arrieta, left, and Hannan Vilchis-Zubizarreta, right.
Hector Valdivia Arrieta walks the rooftop while exploring the attics. Hector Valdivia Arrieta walks the rooftop while exploring the attics.
Hector Valdivia Arrieta walks the rooftop while exploring the attics.
Hector Valdivia Arrieta walks the rooftop while exploring the attics. Hector Valdivia Arrieta walks the rooftop while exploring the attics.
The synagogue’s tripled-vaulted ceilings form three Dutch gables.
The Center for Computational Science’s Amin Sarafraz, left, and Chris Mader keep a watchful eye on the drone. The Center for Computational Science’s Amin Sarafraz, left, and Chris Mader keep a watchful eye on the drone.
The Center for Computational Science’s Amin Sarafraz, left, and Chris Mader keep a watchful eye on the drone.
Operated by Chris Mader, the drone flies in the courtyard, taking thousands of photos stripped of perspective. Operated by Chris Mader, the drone flies in the courtyard, taking thousands of photos stripped of perspective.
Operated by Chris Mader, the drone flies in the courtyard, taking thousands of photos stripped of perspective.
The oldest continuously operating synagogue in this hemisphere is in downtown Curaçao. The oldest continuously operating synagogue in this hemisphere is in downtown Curaçao.
The oldest continuously operating synagogue in this hemisphere is in downtown Curaçao.
Curacao’s waterfront it known for its colorful Dutch-style buildings and its floating bridge. Curacao’s waterfront it known for its colorful Dutch-style buildings and its floating bridge.
Curacao’s waterfront it known for its colorful Dutch-style buildings and its floating bridge.

Over the next weeks, the students will spend their class time refining and combining the dozens of individual drawings they made of the synagogue’s lofty interior spaces and of many of its intricate details and monumental mahogany furniture—the ark on the bimah that holds 18 precious torahs, the reading platform where the spiritual leader conducts services, the towering brass candle chandeliers that are lit only on Yom Kipper and for weddings, the majestic columns that soar skyward, the three Dutch gables and semi-circular vaulted ceilings, the impressive organ added in the 19th century, and the latticework of timbers that ancient shipbuilders so expertly fashioned to form the attics.

“There is a wisdom embedded in these structures that goes back generations,” Hernández said, trying to keep the skullcap men are required to wear inside the Snoa, as the house of worship is widely known, atop his mane of silver hair. “Every culture embeds that wisdom in its built environment, and we can’t lose them for that reason. They are like textbooks. We can learn from them, and adapt them for contemporary use.”

As he spoke, the drone operated by the Center for Computational Science’s Chris Mader, director of software engineering, and Amin Sarafraz, a computer vision expert, buzzed up and down the Snoa’s north wall. Over the week, it would take thousands of photos that, stripped of all perspective and merged into single images, would provide students the bird’s-eye views that architects have used to convey their plans since antiquity.

“The concept is as old as Egypt,” said Hernández, who directs the School of Architecture’s Historic Preservation Certificate Program. “It hasn’t changed. It’s the pencil that keeps changing. The drone is like another pencil. It just so happens it’s a very fast pencil.”

Intrigued by that changing pencil, Mathews, the art historian, is exploring how old and new technologies can be used together to create a more comprehensive understanding of historic structures.

It was UM’s multidisciplinary work in Cuba—and the School of Architecture’s pioneering collaborations with the Center for Computational Science to map informal cities—that gave UM’s first lady the idea for developing an architectural and historical survey of the Caribbean’s Jewish heritage. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Knaul is keenly aware of the need to preserve the history of Jews who scattered around the world, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.

She and UM President Julio Frenk have explored synagogues around the world and on their 20th wedding anniversary in 2015 visited Curaçao, where they were warmly welcomed by the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue congregation, which included UM alumni and parents of students. There the idea for the pilot project was sown, and later reinforced on a visit to the reconstructed synagogue in Barbados—potentially next on the project list.

“What is so unusual about UM is we have all the pieces, all the experts, to do this,” Knaul said. “What the School of Architecture did with Cuban churches is transferable knowledge, so we are in an ideal position to develop and maintain architectural information on Jewish synagogues in the Caribbean, working with their own home communities.”

Lovingly cared for, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is already a well-preserved Sephardi synagogue, one that has retained the liturgy, rituals and customs of the Jews who originated from Spain and Portugal and arrived on the island in 1651. But today it attracts far more tourists and school children on daily visits than worshippers at weekly services. Only about 300 Jews remain in Curaçao, and half belong to the Ashkenazi synagogue, where Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent feel more at home.

“When this synagogue opened in 1732, there were 2,000 Sephardic Jews on the island—half the population of Curaçao and more Jews than in all of North America,” said Avery Tracht, the synagogue’s hazzan, or cantor, who serves as its spiritual leader. “Now they can’t afford both a rabbi and a cantor so I fulfill both roles.”

For the second part of their semester, the preservation studio students will propose additions to the auxiliary spaces in the Snoa’s courtyard that perhaps would draw more people to the historic treasure while honoring its rich history.

As he climbed through the attics and crawled to the rooftop, Valdivia couldn’t help but reflect on that history, and on the ancient designers whose original drawings for the Snoa were lost long ago.

“Even in the heat, I lost track of time,” he recalled. “The air was different and I’m not only talking about the dust. You can feel the energy of the place up there. You can see the intentions of the design. You’re walking through the skeleton of the building, seeing it from the inside out.”

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue

Opened in 1732, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is located in Willemstad, Curacao. Students with the University of Miami School of Architecture are working on a pilot project to create an architectural and historical record of all the Caribbean’s Jewish synagogues and temples. “Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Olivia Kramer, a fifth-year student from Minnesota.

Sand around my shoes

The floors of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, Curacao, are covered in a fine sand. A symbol of Jewish resilience in the face of relentless persecution, the sand is said to be a reminder of Spanish Jews who muffled the sound of their footsteps when praying in secret during the Inquisition, or of Moses wandering in the desert after leading his people out of slavery in Egypt.
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