Kulanu: Suriname's First Rabbi in Forty Years

Suriname’s Jewish Community Welcome First Rabbi in 40 Years

image: Suriname context map

The question is often asked, can one person really make a difference? This winter the question was answered with a resounding YES during the three month stay in Suriname of Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a rabbi from Southern California. Rabbi Beliak had recently returned to the States after several months ministering to a progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland. His stay in Suriname, which had not had a resident rabbi in 40 years, followed from yeoman efforts by Stephen Gomes, Ph.D, a visiting professor in Suriname from the Dutch Maastricht School of Management, and Jacob Steinberg, a business consultant and Kulanu Board Member.

Independently, both men had “discovered” Suriname’s Jewish community while in the country fulfilling their own professional assignments. Each man, taken by the determination of the small community to retain its Jewish identification and celebrate its unique Jewish heritage, became involved in supporting the community’s efforts to reconnect with world Jewry and to strengthen its Jewish life through outreach, synagogue projects, holiday celebrations, etc. On return to his Toronto home, Steinberg even founded Chai Vekayam (Live for the Future), an organization to support Suriname’s Neve Shalom synagogue and its congregation, created a web site for the community and started a newsletter to report on the community’s affairs and progress.

In celebrating the differences individual people can make within a community or in the world, we surely have to recognize not only Rabbi Beliak, but Stephen Gomes and Jacob Steinberg as well, for their outstanding and selfless work on behalf of the Jews of Suriname.

Highlights of Rabbi Beliak’s Time in Suriname

On his arrival in late November, Rabbi Beliak received his first request: to marry Betsy Marsan (68 years old) and Leendert Herman Duym (79), a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The couple’s first ceremony had been a secular one without benefit of chuppah (wedding canopy) or ketubah (Jewish marriage document), for no rabbi had resided in Suriname at the time of their marriage. This time, with Rabbi Beliak officiating and surrounded by their 6 children, 14 grandchildren and the whole Jewish community, the couple enjoyed their long-awaited Jewish wedding ceremony complete with chuppah and ketubah.

image: Rabbi Beliak performing wedding ceremony (Photo courtesy Rabbi Beliak)

Rabbi Beliak performing wedding ceremony
(Photo courtesy Rabbi Beliak)

As Rabbi Beliak noted in an email message, “I think for many people it was the first Jewish wedding they had ever seen. The 50th anniversary event was so noteworthy that Mrs. Lisbeth Venetiaan, the wife of Suriname President Dr. Ronald Venetiaan, attended the wedding ceremony and reception .”

Chanukah brought more celebrations. A sizable menorah was placed outside the synagogue, and it was lit each night with members of the community in attendance. The children, in particular, were excited to participate in the candle lighting. Inside the synagogue, smaller menorahs were placed and lit. On the third day of Chanukah, Rabbi Beliak was hosted at a family day Chanukah party, which brought out 80 to 100 community members for food, dreidle playing and games. The party concluded with the lighting of the Chanukah lights.

Rabbi Beliak described his feelings about the synagogue and the community in an e-mail message: “I’ve invited the people to come back each night for lighting the candles. It is so impressive at night to see the Chanukiah (Chanukah candelabra) lit in front of the venerable old shul… When I entered the synagogue, I walked over to the the rabbi’s seat and to the magnificent Hechal (Ark for the Torah). I felt the majesty and gravity of this job. There is a dignity and power to the building that in many ways has been the secret of why the community has survived. As a child of the 60s, complete with my own anti-edifice complex, I never thought I would say that about a building.”

Through Jacob Steinberg’s newsletter, readers have followed the community’s attempts to protect its two active Jewish cemeteries by erecting protective fencing around them. The cemeteries, overgrown with vegetation, were also vulnerable to trash thrown on the property by passers-by. Because the community has limited resources, it often had to decide whether money should be spent on Jewish religious observance, such as purchasing Passover foods for the community seder, or on building the cemetery fences. When faced with such choices, it always opted to purchase items to enhance Jewish observance.

image: Celebrating Hannukah in Suriname (Photo courtesy Rabbi Beliak)

Celebrating Hannukah in Suriname
(Photo courtesy Rabbi Beliak)

In the last year, with help both from community members, who dug deep in their pockets to support this project, and from supporters outside the community, the fences were ready for placement. Thanks are due also to the city of Paramaribo, which supplied heavy equipment and labor to clear the jungle areas surrounding the cemeteries, at no cost to the Jewish community, and to local businessmen, who discounted the materials needed to construct the fences.

With the community vice president Lilly Duym, the community organized a major cleaning day with 30 people participating; the young did the heavy outside clean up and the older members provided refreshments. The cemeteries’ grounds were weeded and trash removed; fences were erected complete with gates. As Jacob Steinberg writes in his newsletter: “After decades of neglect, the cemeteries are now protected with a solid iron fence and gates and look clean and respectable. “

Rabbi Beliak’s presence also jump-started a series of classes devoted to Jewish learning. The rabbi taught Judaism to 25 young adults from ages 18 to 30 who had never participated in any formal Jewish education classes before. Their interest and attendance attest to their desire to learn and to live as Jews. Many of these young people hope to participate in the Birthright to Israel program, enabling them to connect in a direct and meaningful way with their heritage and with other young Jewish men and women. In addition to Rabbi Beliak, their instructors were Errol Abrahams, a beloved history teacher, and Shul Donk, president of the congregation.

Other classes included one for students preparing for their Bar Mitzvahs, another for five individuals completing the conversion process, which had begun prior to the Rabbi’s arrival, and a class for 20 adults meeting regularly to study Judaism and practice Hebrew.In addition, a weekly Torah portion class discovered the world of classic Jewish study. With a view to the future, the new education committee of Neve Shalom, initiated by Rabbi Beliak, began its efforts to educate 20 children in the community.

The community always opted to enhance Jewish observance.

And so it went: Jewish education, holiday celebrations, community activism, community building, life-cycle events. Along the way, Rabbi Beliak managed to meet most of the Jews of Suriname at least once in their homes. Rabbi Beliak’s three months in the community were a resounding success. While his visit highlighted what could be done, it also identified what else needs to be done. Pirke Avot, a book of ethical maxims from the Talmud, teaches us that it is not incumbent on any one person to finish the job, but it is incumbent on each person to begin.

If we were to list some of the important priorities for the Suriname Jewish community, they would be:

  1. Keeping this community connected to the world-wide Jewish community
  2. Supporting the community’s goal of preserving its rich heritage
  3. Assisting the leadership in strengthening the community through its own effort to train its teachers and adults to involve themselves in the educational process
  4. Encouraging rabbis and Jewish educators to volunteer their time in Suriname so that both young and old can have the benefit of a Jewish education; and
  5. Convincing other Jewish organizations to take an active role in strengthening and preserving this community.

Rabbi Beliak has many ideas and perhaps you, our readers, will have some too. Rabbi Beliak is now back in the United States. He describes his experience in Suriname as both “inspiring and humbling.” But what is clear is that he wants to bring more attention to this once flourishing outpost of the Jewish Diaspora. JM

The small South American country of Suriname is located north of Brazil, between Guyana and French Guiana. Its Jewish population can be traced back to the first Jews to arrive in Suriname in the 1630’s. Most of those men and women were descendants of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, who had traveled to Suriname from Holland, Portugal and Italy, via Brazil. For additional historical and current information, please visit www.suriname-jewish-community.com