It’s not often that one’s cruise ship can safely pull in right smack up against a dock that’s situated alongside the main street of a city.
But that’s what happened on a recent Caribbean cruise when our ship, the Crown Princess, actually dropped us off onto the doorstep of L.G. Smith Boulevard, a broad street on the small Caribbean island of Aruba, replete with Royal Plaza and Renaissance malls, as well as stores displaying Bulgari and Jaeger LeCoultre watches. No tender boats from our cruise ship for these passengers.
No buses to downtown after reaching land. No long walk for travelers. Only a five-to-10 minute stroll to hit the shops, including Little Switzerland and Diamonds International.
While one doesn’t specifically come to Aruba for shopping, it’s readily available and for those who love this pastime, downtown Oranjestad, the capital, remains a magnet. Aruba just happens to be the most visited island in the Dutch Caribbean.
If ever there was an island, for “sun, sand and sailing,” it’s this small Caribbean isle – about 31 kilometers from Venezuela and 68 kilometers west of Curacao – which has become an “in” destination for travelers who love nothing more than beautiful hotels, wonderful beaches and pretty good weather throughout the year. Actually, it is said that the island averages 28 sunny degrees year round. Wellgroomed tennis courts and golf courses dot the island, whose population is a little more than 100,000.
And if that doesn’t entice you, the underwater sports are outstanding, such as windsurfing, kayaking, kite surfing, tubing, parasailing, water skiing, sailing snorkeling, scuba, swimming and fishing. Indeed, the first words I heard on a recent visit to the island were, “Get your head beneath the sea,” voiced to me by an Aruba travel expert.
Realistically, the center of Aruban tourism remains its legendary Palm Beach, which stretches for seven glorious miles full of sun umbrellas and deck chairs, surrounded by famous hotels such as Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, Hyatt Regency Aruba, Aruba Beach Resort & Casino and The Westin Resort & Casino. In addition to Palm Beach, the island’s “Turquoise Coast,” which runs along Aruba’s western and southern beaches, is called home to the quieter Eagle Beach, located further away from the hotel zone.
I’d advise tourists to skip the “City Tour” – not much to see, though I must say our assigned bus carried us up to the north coast where we explored one of Aruba’s most popular sights, the sea-worn “Natural Bridge” that collapsed in 2005 and the still-intact “Baby Natural Bridge,” an arch carved out of rock and coral.
Oh yes, one can also tour an ostrich farm to see those amazing creatures.
Walk the streets and beaches of Aruba and you hear Dutch as well as Papiamento, the Creole language.
More than half the population is of Indian stock, the rest being of Dutch, Spanish and mestizo origin.
Discovered by Alonzo de Ojeda in 1499, the island of Aruba was claimed by Spain but not settled.
The Dutch took over the island in 1634, but did not really populate it with Europeans for about 200 years.
From 1828, Aruba was a member of the Dutch West Indies and from 1845, part of the Netherlands Antilles from which on December 29, 1954, it achieved self-government.
Today, Aruba is an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The first permanent Jewish settler in Aruba was Moses de Salomo Levi Maduro, who arrived on the island in 1753. He was authorized to have farming land but not cattle. Jews from nearby Curacao, then a Dutch possession, began arriving around 1790. By 1826 there were about 30 Jews on the island, a number that did not increase until the end of World War I. The installation of the large refinery in 1929 attracted many Jews from Poland and Romania.
Many of those newly arrived Jews became peddlers – selling to islanders on credit. Although the Jewish community was officially recognized in 1946, it was not until November 4, 1962 that the first Orthodox synagogue was built. At that time there were 35 Jewish families.
What makes Aruba attractive to Jewish vacationers is a Jewish presence, though the congregation is small. Beth Israel Synagogue stands on Adriaan Lacle Boulevard, No. 2, in Oranjestad; services are held every Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
I met up with David Cybul, honorary consul of Colombia in Aruba, who has been to Israel many times.
The synagogue, which has mixed seating, maintains a Jewish cemetery, he told me. He is proud of one of his major accomplishments in the Jewish community; he raised money for the installation of a statue of Anne Frank, located in Wilhemina Park in Oranjestad.
At Beth Israel, I met Rabbi Daniel Kripper, who is a graduate and former dean of the noted “Marshall T.
Meyer” Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires. The rabbi speaks English, Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew and took postgraduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And he received a doctorate in divinity honoris causa from New York City’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Besides kabbalat Shabbat, the synagogue holds services on Jewish holidays and Torah study sessions on Shabbat afternoons, as well as a Saturday morning service once a month. One Friday night a month, the community sponsors a Shabbat meal well attended by tourists on the island, according to Rabbi Kripper.
The Jewish population is figured at about 40 families, plus another 20 families who visit during the year; many US citizens own houses or timeshares in Aruba. They and other overseas members help support the synagogue, which contains a modern-designed sanctuary, as well as three other rooms for study and activities.
The rabbi told me while they have infrequent bar and bat mitzva ceremonies from permanent resident children, bar mitzvas and weddings for overseas residents are frequent. The congregation does manage to sponsor a Hebrew class of a dozen children. Unfortunately, like other islands in the Caribbean, Jewish young people often move out unless they find work in the family business.
Some kosher food can be obtained in local supermarkets, mostly fish and chicken, said Rabbi Kripper. Many Jewish groups are housed at the beach hotels with supervised kosher facilities, such as the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and the Hyatt Regency Resort & Casino.
Many of the shops are owned by Jews whose grandparents and parents settled here after World War I when a large group of Eastern Europe Jews, mostly from Poland, arrived – as did Sephardic Jews from Holland and Suriname. One such popular establishment is Gandelman Jewelers.
The Jewish community of course is not isolated from their co-religionists in the Caribbean, which to this day is home to some of the oldest congregations in the Western Hemisphere. The Aruba Jewish community, in the words of Rabbi Kripper, stands as a “proud founding member” of the Union Judia de Congregaciones Judias de Latinoamericano y El Caribe.
As Rabbi Kripper noted, many North American Jews come to Aruba for “short periods” of time.
More probably arrived during the harsh winter of 2013-2014, one of the worst in recent years in northern US. As I write this article, I note that it is 27 degrees midmorning in Aruba, and -9 in Chicago. No wonder they call Aruba “One Happy Island!” The writer, a journalist who also covers travel, is the author of the just-published
Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), and
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter: @bengfrank