MAY 5, 2010, 4:00am. I arrive at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport bound for a country so small, few people would be able to place it on the map—including me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I googled “Suriname” to see where exactly my assignment would take me.
As the Jewish Agency for Israel’s shaliach (emissary) to the Reform Movement, I was asked to determine the eligibility of 16 Jewish Surinamese, ages 18–26, who signed up to go on our Movement’s 10-day URJ Kesher Birthright Israel trip. Birthright Israel (which has sent 250,000+ Jewish young adults from around the world to Israel free of charge) agreed to cover all their expenses, provided that someone validated that they were in fact Jewish. That someone was me.
Suriname, I discovered, is located in the northeast of South America between French Guyana and Guyana. It is the smallest country on the continent, both in terms of population (470,000) and land area (64,000 square miles). Gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1975, Suriname remains the only country outside of Europe where Dutch is the official language.
MAY 6, 1:00am. A long 16 hours after take-off, we touch down at the Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital and only major city. There are no direct flights into the country from outside the Caribbean islands, except from Holland.
Jewish community head Jules Donk, a light-skinned man in his mid-50s, greets me. A local businessman, Donk has made the survival of the Suriname Jewish community his life’s goal. It is one of the oldest in the Americas, dating to the 1630s, but because of a declining population (from 500 in 1970 to fewer than 300 today), its future is uncertain.
MAY 6, 9:00am. The first thing I notice after stepping onto the motel room balcony is a large, white, rectangular building across the street. I read the Hebrew inscription above its entryway: “Hear my prayer, give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah” (Psalms 84:9). It is the exterior of Neve Shalom, the only functioning synagogue and the center of Jewish life in Suriname.
Entering the sanctuary, I notice that the floor is covered with sand, a holdover from the time when worshipers took measures to muffle the sounds of their prayers. Inquisition agents were hunting down conversos (Jews forced to convert to Christianity) for secretly practicing Judaism.
The community’s deputy head, Lilly Duijm, a short, tanned woman in her mid-60s, welcomes me, offering me breakfast along with a tour of the synagogue and a brief history of Suriname Jewry. Jewish settlement began here with the expulsion of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry in the late 15th century. Many exiles found refuge in Holland, and the more adventurous ones chose to settle in the Americas—the Caribbean or the northeastern coast of South America, where Jews helped to establish the sugar cane industry. Jews continued to arrive in waves, even as control of the colony changed hands back and forth between the Dutch and the English. Most Jewish colonists put down roots in and around Paramaribo.
As in other lands where Jews were allowed to live in relative freedom, the Surinamese Jews flourished. The ruling Dutch and British had granted them the right to establish semi-autonomous settlements, which led to the creation in 1665 of Jodensavanne (Juden Savannah). By the 17th century, the Jewish population in Suriname numbered in the thousands.
MAY 7, 9:00am. Jules Donk, Benjamin (one of the Birthright candidates), and I embark on a day trip to the remains of Jodensavanne. After about an hour’s drive south, we enter the massive rainforest, which covers more than 80% of Suriname’s land mass. The narrow and muddy road makes driving
difficult and dangerous.
After another hour we reach one of the Suriname River crossings, only to discover that the bridge has been destroyed by a drunk driver who crashed his boat into it. We cross instead on a rickety motorized raft run by an opportunistic entrepreneur.
As we head by foot toward Jodensavanne, now a national park and landmark, Jules suddenly stops and warns, “In exactly 10 seconds it’s going to rain.” We immediately start running in search of shelter. Ten seconds later a heavy downpour sweeps over us. It lasts for about five minutes, at which point
the skies clear.
Later I ask Jules how he could calculate the onset of the rain so precisely. “You have to learn to listen to the jungle,” he replies. “If the animals suddenly become quiet, you know it’s going to rain in 10 seconds, and you prepare yourself.”
A few minutes later we enter a clearing and behold the only structure still standing in Jodensavanne—a stone synagogue. The only other signs of the 800 Jews who once inhabited this place are 300 tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions.
Jews started abandoning Jodensavanne in the mid-18th century, after a sharp drop in world sugar prices took its toll on the growers. In time, the entire community relocated to Paramaribo. Still, the abandoned site remains sacred to the Jews of Suriname. Long after its demise, many Surinamese Jews insisted on being buried here among their ancestors.
MAY 7, about 7:00pm. I arrive at the Neve Shalom synagogue, where every week the community gathers for Shabbat worship, either on Friday night or Saturday morning. Though its roots are Sephardic and Orthodox, the congregation now defines itself as Liberal and belongs to the World Union for Progressive Judaism—but uses old Orthodox siddurim (rather than the other set of Reform prayer books in Dutch). I count 30 people, mostly the older members of the community. While the vast majority of the men and women sit together, I notice two ladies on benches on the other side of the synagogue, apart from everyone else—steadfastly maintaining the Orthodox practice of separate seating.
Jules Donk conducts the service (the community doesn’t have a rabbi and the cantor is sick), and seems to be the only congregant who actually knows the prayers. I notice that the entire congregation stands up and sits down when I do! Clearly most of the worshipers lack basic Jewish knowledge and regard me as an authority. The service reminds me of an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue in Jerusalem I once attended, where the service leader chanted the prayers and the congregation occasionally repeated a few words.
Following the service we all reconvene in an adjacent synagogue building for Kiddush and a meal prepared mostly by Lily Duijm. Twice as many people show up for the food than attend the service, and the average age drops substantially.
MAY 9, about 5:00pm. I meet with the Birthright candidates, most of whom have learned about Jewish history and practices, Hebrew, and Israel over the past two years at the improvised weekly Sunday school led by Jules Donk. As this is the only Jewish education they have received, the “youngsters,” as they refer to themselves, seldom miss a meeting, regardless of other obligations. Only two of them have celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah, because most have a non-Jewish parent (the interfaith marriage rate is well over 60%). Still, all 16 of them passionately express their connection to Judaism and to the Jewish people. They want to learn more about Judaism, and to connect to what they know is a much larger communal family than the one they have in Suriname.
After a brief orientation, I interview each candidate individually. A rap artist—the most popular one in Suriname I later find out—wants to go to Israel mainly because he is curious about its culture, but is afraid that Israelis will be offended by his “non Jewish looking” tattoos. I tell him that he will see many tattooed young people in Israel who won’t really care about what he has inscribed on his body, and, if anything, will be curious to learn about Surinamese culture. One girl says she is excited to experience a country with a Jewish majority and lifestyle, the exact opposite of what she has known her entire life—but she worries that she’ll end up wanting to extend her stay in Israel and not return on time to medical school in Holland. I reply that it will ultimately be up to her to sort out her priorities. A recent convert to Judaism of Chinese origins expresses a strong desire to meet Jews outside of Suriname because “it requires a tremendous effort to be a Jew in my country.” All of the candidates say they are fascinated by the idea of a Jewish state and they hope to return to Suriname with a renewed sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
MAY 10, 1:00am. With the last interview complete, I sit down with Jules and inform him that I expect almost all the candidates to meet Birthright Israel’s eligibility requirements, as their affinity to the Jewish people is voluntary and they have renounced any other religion in which they may have been brought up. I also tell Jules how much I admire what he’s doing for the community.
A little later, while I am waiting to board my plane back to New York, I think about my job as an Israeli emissary to the Jewish people. Nothing seems more fitting to me than to perform this role in Suriname, a community on the fringes whose young people yearn to reconnect with Jews worldwide.
Hanan Cidor is the former Jewish Agency for Israel shaliach (emissary) to the Union for Reform Judaism and the North American Federation of Temple Youth.
Jerusalem Museum Rescues a Suriname Synagogue
RJ: How did Suriname’s Tzedek Ve-Shalom Synagogue become part of The Israel Museum’s collection?
James S. Snyder, director of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem: In the mid-1990s, after learning from a member of the Suriname Jewish community that this historic synagogue in Paramaribo was no longer in use and falling into serious disrepair, a specialized team from the Museum traveled to Suriname to conduct discussions with the Jewish community about rescuing the synagogue and its contents. In 1999, the synagogue interior was taken down, packed up, and shipped to Israel. After nearly a full decade of careful restoration work, Tzedek Ve-Shalom was unveiled in Jerusalem in July 2010, when we opened our renewed and expanded campus. It is now a highlight of our new Synagogue Route, which also features synagogue interiors from Horb, Germany; Vittorio Veneto, Italy; and Cochin, India.
How did you preserve the wooden furniture and furnishings?
We kept them for several years in a temperature-controlled environment, until the wood gradually acclimated to the dryness of Jerusalem’s climate, a stark contrast to the humidity of Suriname. Only then did we begin the restoration process, which included stripping down the paint on all of the benches and wooden furniture to the original layer, while preserving the “layers of history” (paint) on the underside of the benches.
How has the Paramaribo community responded to the installation?
Last year the president and secretary of the Suriname community visited us to observe the restoration process, which by then was almost complete. Sitting down on one of the pews, the president looked astonished and deeply moved. He explained later that he had become a bar mitzvah at Tzedek Ve-Shalom 40 years earlier, shortly before it had been abandoned as a house of worship. He had never seen the sanctuary looking as good as it did now—not very different from how it must have appeared new in 1820.
How can a museum preserve the atmosphere of a synagogue as a liturgical space, infused with a sense of the holy?
The objective is to intertwine beauty and sanctity—the idea that something is so beautiful that it seems to become holy, or something is so holy that it seems imbued with a sense of beauty. The resonant connection between these two qualities uplifts visitors. Walking around the Suriname synagogue, located within the museum’s Jewish Art and Life Wing, they will hopefully feel the vanishing past coming alive. To enhance this experience, instead of displaying the original Suriname artifacts in glass cases, we placed the Torah ark, the candle holders, everything where they would have been used during worship. And liturgical background music subliminally evokes the spirit of this once vibrant congregation.