The Surprising Discovery of Suriname’s Jewish Community

(The author is a new member of Kulanu’s Board)

When I mentioned to some friends that I was going to work for two weeks in Suriname, I realized that they knew very little about the place. One friend asked me: “When are you going to Africa?” My doctor asked me: “When are you going to this island in the Philippines?” So let me start with a short description of where Suriname is.

Suriname (where Dutch is the official language) is located on the northeastern coast of South America. Its northern border is the Atlantic Ocean. The west side is bordered by the People’s Republic of Guyana (an ex-British colony where English is the formal language), and the east side is bordered by French Guyana (a French territory where French is the official language). Brazil (a Portuguese-speaking country) is at the southern border, which runs through the mountains and hilly savannas of the Amazon region. Some 80 percent of Suriname is covered with dense tropical rainforest.

Before I left my home in Canada, I thought that the highlight of my trip would most probably be my work, deep in the jungle. Really, how many finance people do you know going to their office in the Amazon basin? I expected to see anaconda snakes, jaguars, and monkeys, but definitely not the descendants of King David.

In Paramaribo

I arrived at the capital Paramaribo on a Sunday and before heading to the jungle I went for a walk in downtown (without a street map) to see the white wooden colonial buildings that in 2002 were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It was impressive, and so was the heat, 40C (104 F) and humid. All of a sudden I saw two magnificent buildings, one next to the other. The first was the old Neve Shalom Synagogue and the second was the new grand Mosque of Paramaribo. The Synagogue was closed. I decided that upon my return to the city, I’d come back on Saturday for a visit, which I did. Early that Saturday morning I walked down to the Synagogue; I hoped to be there by 9 AM for the morning service. But Paramaribo is not Toronto. Because of the tropical climate in Suriname, the service started at 8 AM and by the time I arrived, the service was almost over. The 20 worshipers were a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and included blacks (ancestors of the West African slaves who worked in the sugar plantations); a few of Indian descent (known locally as Hindustanis), and a few of mixed race. Not a typical crowd of a Toronto shul! After the Kiddush, I was invited to come back on Monday morning so I could take photos and meet with Lilly, the Synagogue Vice President. I can describe my first impression of the Synagogue in one word: amazing.

On Monday morning, Lilly Duym, a middle aged lady, was waiting for me. I quickly realized that I had met a very special person. Lilly runs the shul administration, is a tour guide, and takes care of all the Jewish assets in town (two synagogues and four cemeteries). Since the community does not have many financial resources, every six months Lilly and the Hindustani housekeeper paint the entire synagogue wooden exterior, a huge task. Her passion and pride in her community’s special Jewish heritage is reflected in all that she does. Clearly, she is the Neshama (soul) of the community.

Lilly and her extended family are descendants of one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish Sephardic families — the Abarvanels (also known as Abarbanel). They trace their origin from the biblical King David. One of the most famous members of the clan was Don Isaac Abarvanel, the last and greatest leader of Spanish Jewry prior to the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. He was a statesman, philosopher, Torah commentator, and financier. After the Expulsion, the Abarvanels settled in Holland, England, Turkey, and Greece. Lilly’s family immigrated to Suriname from Holland.

Jewish History

The first European explorer to set foot on the Surinamese shore was the legendary Spanish Conquistador Alonso de Ojeda, in 1499. Spain did not start to explore Suriname until 1593, but they didn’t settle there. In 1629, the first group of Jews settled in the old capital of Suriname, Torarica (Portuguese for “rich or splendid Torah”). Jews of Portuguese descent, they came from Holland, arriving through Brazil, and started to lay out a number of sugar plantations on the west bank of the Suriname River. In 1652 the English also established sugar and tobacco plantations in the same area and began to establish a British territory. The first synagogue was soon built.

A second group of Jews arrived and settled on the savannah. This area is nowadays known as the “Jodensavanne” (the Jewish savanna or Jerusalem on the River). A third group of Jews arrived in 1664 and, together with the Jews of Torarica, moved and joined the Jodensavanne. The British colonial government granted several important privileges to the Jewish community, including freedom of religion and permission to build their own synagogues and schools.

In order to expand their plantations, in 1667 the Dutch traded New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) for the English territory of Suriname. The Jodensavanne developed rapidly. The Portuguese Sephardic Jews’ knowledge of planting turned the place into a flourishing agricultural community. The Jodensavanne became the pillar of the entire colony of Suriname. In 1685, a second synagogue was built; it was called Beracha Ve Shalom (Blessing and Peace). In 1694, the Jewish community consisted of about 570 people, who owned about 40 sugar plantations. The community continued to flourish and in the early 1700s, the Jews owned 115 of the 400 plantations in the country. The Jodensavanne graveyard, with its marble gravestones imported from Europe, was considered to be one of the most beautiful in South America.

In 1712, the French Admiral Cassard and his pirates invaded Suriname. They demanded an enormous levy. The prosperous Jews had to pay the greater part of it in sugar, hard cash, entire sugar mills, and many slaves. The country never recovered completely from this event. In addition, with the decrease in value of sugar cane by the introduction of beet sugar in Europe; the refusal of the banks to finance the Jewish settlers in rebuilding some of their plantations that were burned by escaped slaves; and the development of the new capital, Paramaribo, many inhabitants of the Jodensavanne left to settle in the new capital.

They continued to return to celebrate the holidays in the Jodensavanne synagogue until 1832. That year, on September 10, a large fire raged through the village, reducing all the houses to ash, including the 147-year-old synagogue. Within a few years the dense jungle overgrew the remains of the Jodensavanne.

In 1719, the Ashkenazi Jews in Paramaribo built their Neve Shalom Synagogue. The Sephardic Jews built their own synagogue, Zedek ve Shalom (Justice and Peace), in 1735. After the Ashkenazi synagogue was destroyed by fire, the community rebuilt it in 1835.

Modern Times

When Suriname was granted independence in 1975, almost 35 percent of Suriname’s population left the country, fearing a collapse of the new country’s economy. Most of the wealthy members of the Jewish community were among them. When a brutal civil war erupted in the late 1980s, more members left the country.

Today the Jewish community has about 130 members. The two congregations, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, merged into one synagogue at Neve Shalom, which is larger and has a community hall and mikve. The second synagogue is rented to one of the members of the community and operates as a computer service shop. I visited the building and it is well maintained. All the furniture and art of the old Sephardic synagogue was loaned to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They were restored and are currently exhibited to the public.

A very unique characteristic of the Neve Shalom Synagogue is that it has a sandy floor, which is a reminder of the Hebrews’ 40 years in the desert after the exodus from Egypt and the days of the Marranos, whose ancestors during the Spanish Inquisition were forced to convert to Christianity but who secretly continued to practice their Judaism. Since practicing Judaism was punishable by death, they met in cellars with sand covering the floor to muffle their sounds. The sand was probably added after the Sephardic synagogue merged with the Ashkenazic Neve Shalom.

A few years ago the community changed from Orthodox to Liberal. However, as a result of the lack of financial resources, the community cannot afford a rabbi, which is so desperately needed. As a result, conversions cannot take place for members with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. The Aron Kodesh (Ark) is full of beautiful Torahs hundreds of years old. Only two are used, as the others need repairs that the community can’t afford.

The community faces several other challenges. The chazan (cantor) who runs the services is self-taught; the youth do not have the opportunity to interact with other South American Jewish kids; the mikve is in need of repairs; and gravestones need to be cleaned. Services are held one week on Friday night and the next week on Saturday morning.

After weeks of hard work in the 1990s, the jungle in the Jodensavanne was cleared. About 450 graves were uncovered and the ruins of the synagogue have been preserved. With the help of the Suriname Government, it is now possible to reach the Jodensavanne by car and ferry boat. Thanks to these initiatives, one of the oldest historic monuments in Suriname and South America has been preserved for future generations.

I left this wonderful community with the wish that I could find a volunteer organization that would be able to help in providing basic religious services to isolated Jewish communities such as Neve Shalom. A few weeks later I was introduced to Kulanu and the response was above and beyond my initial expectations. Sarah Goldenstein, a University of North Carolina at Ashville student, had recently arrived in Suriname for six weeks to provide the community with Jewish education. This initiative is due to the generosity of Kulanu.

Immediately Sarah began an extremely busy program of Hebrew and Judaic lessons for adults, children ages 6 to 13, and children ages 3 to 5. For the children, the lessons included learning the alphabet and Hebrew reading, stories from the Tanach, Hebrew singing, dancing, and arts and crafts such as making challah covers and Kiddush cups. The adults’ classes were focused on basic Hebrew reading, writing, and comprehension for one group and conversational Hebrew for another group. On the weekends Sarah organized activities such as Talmud study, Jewish history, learning Hebrew while baking cakes, Hebrew/Jewish lessons at the zoo, and nature lessons. For such a small community that does not have a rabbi or an educator, Sarah’s energy and enthusiasm were an amazingly positive experience. Unfortunately, by the end of June, Sarah headed to Brazil as an exchange student at Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná. Sarah deserves our gratitude for her great work. We hope that there will be a continuation of the educational program begun by Sarah.

Currently Suriname is not a popular tourist destination; in my opinion, it is one of the best kept secrets. The potential for Eco-tourism is unlimited, with the undisturbed dense tropical rainforest, rivers and waterfalls, rare species such as the blue poison dart frog, and many birds and flowers unique to this part of the world. It is just a question of time before small cruise ships will start visiting, resorts will be developed, and tourism will become the major industry of Suriname. That will help the country’s economy and hopefully will end the isolation of this unique but forgotten Jewish community.

(The next newsletter will feature a dispatch from Shai Fierst, a Jewish Peace Corps Volunteer in the Suriname rainforest.)