Architecture students kick off a collaborative effort to document Jewish houses of worship in the Caribbean with classic techniques, high-tech tools, and plenty of elbow grease.

Architecture students kick off a collaborative effort to document Jewish houses of worship in the Caribbean with classic techniques, high-tech tools, and plenty of elbow grease.
Volume 25 Number 1 | Spring 2019
by Maya Bell

The island of Curaçao is famed for its beautiful beaches, quaint dutch architecture, and a history of european jewish settlement that goes back centuries.

At the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao’s capital city of Willemstad, all of these iconic facets of the island come together— even the beaches. The floors of the venerable structure’s sanctuary and mezzanine are covered with sand.

Those shallow but constantly shifting dunes posed a challenge for eight University of Miami School of Architecture students who traveled to Curaçao last August to document every cornice and crevice of the triple-vaulted building.

“We were on hands and knees measuring and doublechecking every dimension,” recalls student Olivia Kramer. “We would leave the synagogue soaked in sweat and with sand in our shoes.’’

Kramer and the other students who spent the first week of the fall semester on this Dutch island in the Caribbean, just north of Venezuela, may not have known exactly what they were in for when they signed up for professor Jorge L. Hernández’s elective design studio in historic preservation. But the exacting process of creating the most comprehensive and accurate architectural drawings of the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas turned out to be a uniquely rewarding learning experience—and laid the groundwork for an even more ambitious endeavor to create an architectural and historical record of all the Jewish synagogues and temples in the Caribbean.


The University’s first lady, Felicia Marie Knaul, came up with the idea when she and her husband, President Julio Frenk, visited Curaçao in 2015 to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The two have explored synagogues around the world and were warmly welcomed by the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel congregation, which includes some University of Miami alumni and parents.

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and director of the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas (U-MIA), Knaul is keenly aware of the need to preserve the history of Jews around the world, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. “The Nazis destroyed many of the synagogues in Europe,” she says. “We don’t want time or neglect to destroy the places in our hemisphere where Jews found refuge and prospered for centuries.”

Known affectionately as the Snoa, the lovingly caredfor Mikvé Israel-Emanuel has retained the liturgy, rituals, and customs of the Sephardi Jews who arrived in Curaçao from Spain and Portugal in 1651. Modeled after the main synagogue in Amsterdam and erected by Dutch Jews whose ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition, the Snoa first opened its mahogany doors to congregants in 1732.

“At the time, there were a few thousand Sephardi Jews on the island—half the population of Curaçao and more Jews than in all of North America,” says Avery Tracht, the hazzan, or cantor, who serves as the congregation’s spiritual leader. Today only about 300 Jews remain in Curaçao; half of them belong to the Snoa.

The effort to create an archive of the Caribbean’s Jewish heritage is a collaborative venture between U-MIA, the School of Architecture, Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, Center for Computational Science, and College of Arts and Sciences. “What is so unusual about UM,” notes Knaul, “is that we have all the pieces, all the experts, to do this.”

“We want to document these structures one by one, and Curaçao was a perfect place to start,” says Haim Shaked, director of the Miller Center. “Mikvé Israel- Emanuel is a unique building with a unique history, and you feel that history when you walk in.”


“We want to document these structures one by one, and Curaçao was a perfect place to start.”


Working in two groups—a floor plan team and a longitudinal sections team—the students spent six long, hot days in the Snoa, measuring and sketching. Though the space lacks air conditioning, Caribbean breezes blow through dozens of louvered windows crowned by blue half-moon stained-glass insets that splash the interior with a cool cobalt-colored glow.

A symbol of Jewish resilience in the face of relentless persecution, the sound-dampening sand is variously said to honor the Spanish Jews who muffled their footsteps when praying in secret during the Inquisition, or to evoke the desert terrain through which Moses wandered after leading his people out of slavery in Egypt.

It did not, however, make things easy for the students who were responsible for establishing a datum line, the vertical reference point that anchors all architectural drawings. “In a place where the floor is sand,” explains Hernández, B.Arch. ’80, “the datum line is even more important, because the floor is so irregular.”

Ricardo Lopez, B.Arch. ’00, M.A.S.T. ’07, assistant director of the School of Architecture’s Center for Urban and Community Design, teaches a class on standards for surveying historic American buildings. In Curaçao, he guided students in the use of lasers, levels, plumb lines, tape measures, string, and even a translucent, flexible tube filled with water to set the perfect datum line.

“In ancient times,” says Lopez, “they probably used a piece of an animal intestine to do the same thing.”

A triumphant yell punctuated Mikvé Israel-Emanuel’s hushed tranquility when the students finally established the datum line, painstakingly marked with dots on masking tape about five feet above the shifting sands on both floors.

Outside, a drone operated by the Center for Computational Science’s Chris Mader, director of software engineering, and Amin Sarafraz, a computer vision expert, took thousands of photos of the building’s north wall. The images were then melded into the bird’s-eye views that architects have used since antiquity to convey their plans.

While the concepts of architectural drafting have barely changed over the centuries, says Hernández, who directs the School of Architecture’s historic preservation certificate program, the pencil “keeps changing. The drone is like another pencil—it just so happens it’s a very fast pencil.”




Back on campus, students refined and combined the dozens of individual drawings they made of the synagogue’s lofty interior spaces, as well as many of its intricate details and monumental furnishings: the ark on the bimah that holds 18 precious torahs, the reading platform where the spiritual leader conducts services, the towering brass candle chandeliers, the majestic columns, the Dutch gables and semi-circular vaulted ceilings, the impressive 19th-century organ, and the latticework of timbers forming the attics.

During the second part of the semester, the students proposed additions to the auxiliary spaces in the Snoa’s courtyard that, perhaps, would draw more people to the historic treasure while honoring its rich heritage.

“There is a wisdom embedded in a culture’s built environment that goes back generations,” Hernández says. “The structures are like textbooks. We can learn from them and adapt them for contemporary use.”

For the students, the unique learning experience offered by their intimate interaction with the synagogue and its history was deeply moving. “I lost track of time,” recalls student Hector Valdivia Arreta. “The air was different, and I’m not only talking about the dust. You could feel the energy of the place and the intentions of the design. When the work was tedious, you could rest your mind in a place filled with inspiration—simply by lying down on the sand floor and looking up.”