PARIMARIBO, SURINAME, August 20—Eighteen Jewish young people from Parimaribo, Suriname departed today for Israel on the first leg of their journey to Israel to participate in the Birthright Israel program. It is hoped that the visit will help the young Jews of Suriname, isolated for generations, to strengthen their Jewish roots and ensure Jewish continuity in their country. The trip, envisioned for many years and finally a reality, is expected to have a profound impact on the lives of the young people and on their community.
Most of the young people are descendants of Jews who traveled to the jungles of Suriname some 380 years ago from Spain and Portugal to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Others are descended from Jewish immigrants from Holland, Germany and Poland who arrived later and joined the community. Family names, such as Abarbanel, Beuno de Mesquita, Robles de Medina, De Costa, Duym and Fernandes, echo the history of Iberian ancestors and their proud struggle and determination to survive and flourish in a far away land. Despite a jungle climate and the vicissitudes of economic and political upheaval that have occurred throughout the centuries, the community has survived and is the oldest continuing Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere. The Jewish community of Suriname worships in the beautiful Neve Shalom Synagogue in the capital of Parimaribo, which serves as the center of its religious and cultural life.
The Suriname Jewish community (numbering today about 150 people) has long been isolated from world Jewry due to its geographic location and its language (Dutch). The community had no permanent rabbi or Jewish educator for over 40 years until Rabbi Haim Beliak of California spent three months in Suriname last winter providing Jewish education and outreach to an eager community. At the same time, Jules Donk, the community’s president, taught the young people in hopes they would be accepted for Birthright Israel.
During their visit to Israel, the young people will visit the newly restored Zedek v’Shalom Synagogue, originally located in Suriname, which has been rebuilt in the Israel Museum. The synagogue served the Portuguese Sephardic community in Parimeribo until 1999. Today the Jewish community worships together at the Neve Shalom Synagogue.
The Birthright Israel trip for the young men and women of Suriname is being supported through the generous donations and help of a number of individuals and groups. In addition to Birthright Israel, support is being provided by Kulanu (Hebrew: All of Us), an organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities worldwide, with a challenge grant from the Good People Fund. Kulanu is helping with transportation costs from Suriname to the group’s embarkation point in Miami. The Suriname Jewish community also sponsored a number of fundraising activities to complete the fund raising process. In addition, The World Union for Progressive Judaism and Union for Reform Judaism in North America re handling touring arrangements in Israel.
With help from Kulanu, there has been a recent rebirth of interest in Jewish identity and practice in Suriname. In 2008, a Kulanu volunteer spent six weeks in the community, initiating a Hebrew teaching program for children ages 6-12. Since then, Jacob Steinberg, a Kulanu board member and our coordinator for Suriname, has raised funds for a variety of projects such as fencing the historic cemetery, renovating the 150-year old mikvah, renovating the old rabbi’s house, developing a Suriname Jewish community web site, and buying mezuzot for homes and community buildings. In 2010, Kulanu helped pay for matzot and kosher wine sent from New York for the community’s Passover seder.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
FOR INFORMATION CONTACT:
Jules Donk, President, Jewish Community of Suriname
jldonk @ cq-link . sr
Rabbi Haim Beliak, Trip Coordinator
Haimbeliak @ gmail . com
1-310-592-8960 (California, USA)
Jacob Steinberg, Kulanu Coordinator for Suriname
surjewicom @ ymail . com
1-416-271-4544 (Ontario, Canada)
*Suriname is the smallest country in South America and is located north of Brazil, between Guyana and French Guiana