Discovering Suriname’s Jewish past – and present

There’s not much left of the oldest synagogue in the Americas: just a pile of crumbling bricks covered with moss and inhabited by a handful of speedy brown lizards that scamper into the underbrush as I walk around the remnants of Beracha ve Shalom, established on a hill along the Suriname River in 1685.

The only other visitors on this day, besides my guide and me, are some local Amerindian teenagers, who perch on a corner of the ruins, laughing, flirting and snapping digital photos of one another. In the background, the creeping vines and low-hanging branches of the Surinamese rain forest threaten to swallow up the remaining traces of this ancient place of worship. It’s a sad afterlife for a spot that was once home to a vibrant and important Jewish community.
Suriname’s Jewish culture forms the underpinnings of much of the country’s history, but today, the Jewish community here isn’t doing much better than Beracha ve Shalom. Depleted and abandoned, it has dwindled to a population of 200 or so, a tiny fragment of the once-bustling and innovative Jewish presence in this small South American nation. In Paramaribo, the capital, the Neveh Shalom synagogue still stands in the center of town, at the end of Jodenstraat (Dutch for “Jewish street”), but the tiny Jewish community struggles to maintain the traditions that have been passed down for more than 300 years.

Sephardic Jews, who trace their ancestry to the Iberian peninsula, were among the first European settlers of Suriname. After being banished from Portugal in the 15th century, many made their way to the Netherlands. From there, some traveled across the Atlantic and landed in Suriname, on the banks of the Suriname River, where they established sugar plantations. Suriname was an English colony then, and in 1665 the colonial government granted the Jewish community political autonomy, making it the only Diaspora community to be given such privileges until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

The English traded Suriname for New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1667, and Suriname became a Dutch colony. Two years later, a Jewish settlement called Jodensavanne (the Jewish savannah) was established about 50 miles from Paramaribo. The two small Jewish communities already in existence moved there and founded more plantations. Eventually, the settlement became known as Jerusalem on the River and was for some time the largest Jewish agricultural community in the world. Much of Suriname’s economy was built on the fruits of the Jodensavanne, and the Jews grew wealthy, establishing the Beracha ve Shalom (“Blessing and Peace”) synagogue, a ritual bath and a cemetery.

I’d read about Jodensavanne in a history book in grade school. More recently, at age 25, I happened to take an online geography quiz and saw Suriname on a map of South America. Remembering that long-ago reading, I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of visiting the site of such unusual Jewish independence. After a year of hoarding money and vacation days, I finally found myself in Paramaribo, hiring a guide and a driver for the roughly $95 day trip.

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