Suriname is located on the northeastern coast of South America, bordered by the two Guyana’s and Brazil. Dutch is the official language of the country. At just under (64,000 square miles) Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America. It has an estimated population of approximately 490,000, most of whom live on the country’s north coast, where the capital Paramaribo is located. Some 80% of Suriname is covered with dense rain forests. From
Unlike Jewish communities in the Caribbean whose first Jewish inhabitants arrived with Columbus and the expeditions from Spain, the Jewish community in Suriname arrived somewhat later, in 1629, from Holland and Brazil. Jacob Steinberg describes the community’s history: Most Jews were of Portuguese descent and settled in the old Surinamese capital of Torarica (Portuguese for “rich or splendid Torah”). A synagogue was built after 1652, which was also the year that the British established a colony on Surinam; they also established sugar and tobacco plantations.
The first European explorer to set foot on the shore of Suriname, however, 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.
A second group of Jews arrived and settled on the savannah in an area known as “Jodensavanne” (the Jewish savanna or Jerusalem on the River). A third group of arrived in 1664 and, together with the Jews of Torarica, moved and joined the Jodensavanne. Suriname by this time was entirely controlled by the British colonial government.
Steinberg continues his report: the territory of Suriname was traded in 1667 by the British to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam (later to become the metropolis of New York). The Dutch were looking to expand their plantations. The Jodensavanne developed rapidly, becoming the pillar of the entire colony of Suriname. A second synagogue was built in 1685; it was called Beracha Ve Shalom (Blessing and Peace). By 1694, there were 570 Jews in Suriname who owned some 40 sugar plantations.
By 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, however, 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, and ultimately the Jews left the Jodensavanne to settle the newly built capital Paramiribo, although they returned to celebrate Jewish holidays in the Jodensavanne synagogue until 1832 when a fire destroyed it (along with the rest of the town). Within a few years the dense jungle overgrew the remains of the Jodensavanne.
By 1719, Suriname had both Ashkenai and Sephardi Jewish communities, each with their own synagogues in Paramiribo. The Sephardi synagogue was called Zedek ve Shalom (Justice and Peace).
In the last 35 years, most of the Jews who lived in Suriname have gone, having fled after the country was granted independence in 1975 and then again during the civil war that erupted in the late 1980s. 35% of Suriname’s overall population left as well.
Today there are only 130 Jews in Suriname in a single congregation with a community hall and a mikve. The furniture and art in one of the original synagogues from the capital was transported in its entirety and now is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem along with a recreation of the entire synagogue including a sandy floor meant to symbolize the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert.
The community in Suriname today is very poor and does not have a rabbi or the funds to restore the many Torah scrolls that remain or the mikve, which is in dire need of repairs. In the 1990s, the government cleared the jungle in the Jodensavanne revealing some 450 graves and the ruins of the original synagogue.
You can read a full account of Jacob Steinberg’s visit in 2008 here.
Suriname birthright trip
The Kulanu organization appealed to its members in 2010 to raise funds to help send 16 Jewish youth from Suriname on a birthright trip (a two-week tour of Israel’s religious and historic sites). Birthright agreed to take the group and to conduct a tour in Dutch. More information here. Here is a press release about the trip.
There is an emotional video of the Suriname youth’s visit to Israel here. The narration is in Hebrew but the interviews with the Surinamese Jews is in English.
More about Suriname
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a rabbi from Southern California, spent three months in Suriname in the winter of 2009-2010. He had previously served as a progressive Jewish community rabbi in Warsaw, Poland. Suriname has not had a resident rabbi in 40 years.
Rabbi Beliak’s time was busy – he re-married a couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in a Jewish ceremony. The rabbi also led Hanukah celebrations for 80 community members and taught adult education classes. Details on Rabbu Beliak’s trip are here.
There are other articles about Suriname on the Kulanu website.
Shai Fierst wrote an extensive article in 2008 in Bnei Brith Magazine about the history of the Jews on Suriname. (download the PDF here or read it online here). He visited while stationed in Suriname during a stint with the Peace Corps. It includes information about Jewish plantation and slave owners, as well as similarities in certain words – such as kasseri (close to kosher) and referring to rules of conduct around food. Fierst wrote an additional article that appeared in WorldView Magazine.
Amy Belfor wrote about the Jewish community of Suriname for the Associated Press. She focused on the recent transformation of one of Suriname’s old synagogues into an Internet café and computer shop.
The Suriname Jewish community also has its own website.