Once Thriving Jewish Community in Suriname is Struggling
Until recently, Paramaribo had two ancient synagogues famous for their distinctive architecture and sand-covered floors. Hard times, however, forced the shrinking Jewish community several years ago to lease out the smaller of the two shuls, Tzedek V’Shalom, for $3,500 a month. Once all the Jewish ritual objects inside were removed and shipped off to Israel’s Diaspora Museum, a local computer firm converted the Sephardi synagogue into an Internet cafe.
“We rented it out because we need the money. A small community like this can’t afford two synagogues,” says Jules Donk, president of the remaining congregation, Neve Shalom. “We just couldn’t maintain it anymore.”
Beginning more than 350 years ago, the former Dutch colony on the northern fringes of the Amazon was a haven for persecuted Jews. Now its Jewish community, comfortable as ever in this diverse country, is struggling, hurt by dwindling funds and membership. “We’re the oldest existing Jewish community in the Americas, but the rest of the Jewish world doesn’t care about us,” says Lilly Duym, who manages Neve Shalom. “We don’t get any help, that’s why we had to close the other synagogue and rent out the building. Otherwise, we’d have no income.”
Since 1975, when the Netherlands cut loose its former colony, annual per-capita GDP has fallen precipitously, and most of the hundreds of thousands of Surinamese who fled to Holland after independence – including most of the Jews – never returned.
The country is still recovering from the effects of a civil war that raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As in many countries, drug trafficking has become a serious problem, as has crime, which the locals blame on itinerant Brazilian gold-miners. Yet unlike the rest of South America – which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic – religion in Suriname takes many forms. Amazingly, everyone gets along. “No religion in Suriname has any problem with any other religion,” says Guido Robles, a prominent Jewish businessman in Paramaribo. “All the problems are caused by the politicians.”
Portuguese-speaking Sephardi Jews first came to Suriname around 1660 – before the Dutch – to escape the Inquisition in neighboring Brazil. They prospered in the new climate of tolerance, and many Jews became wealthy slave owners. The ruins of the B’racha V’Shalom synagogue, built in 1685, still attract researchers and archaeologists to Jodensavanna, a site deep in Suriname’s sparsely populated wilderness south of Paramaribo.
Thanks to heavy immigration from India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, about 27 percent of Suriname’s 480,000 inhabitants today profess Hinduism. That makes it the leading religion, though Islam is also prominent, due to the colonial practice of importing laborers from the Indonesian island of Java to work the rice paddies and sugar plantations. There also are Dutch Protestants and Chinese Buddhists, as well as Creoles, Maroons and Amerindians.
Duym said she’s never experienced anti-Semitism. In fact, Suriname’s 200 or so remaining Jews are highly respected members of the community. A number of words of distinctly Hebrew origin have even crept into Sranantongo, the local dialect, such as “abuda kaba” (hard work) and “treef” (forbidden food).
“Cultural diversity is one of Suriname’s most important assets, though it’s not often recognized as such,” says Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States. “For a long time, that diversity was used to polarize Surinamese politics. But that’s over now, and it’s a good thing.”
Nowhere is this diversity more striking than along Paramaribo’s Keizerstraat, where Congregation Neve Shalom and the adjacent Suriname Islamic Society mosque coexist peacefully.
The Javanese mosque is the largest of hundreds scattered throughout Suriname, but Neve Shalom – built in 1719 and rebuilt in 1835 after a fire – is the only functioning synagogue left in the country.
“We have respect for each other’s culture,” says Robles, who’s also chairman of the Jodensavanna Foundation. “If you grow up with that as a kid, you’re used to it and you don’t ask questions. One friend is Hindustani, another one is Javanese, another is Creole. You respect it and enjoy it. When we have important holidays like Passover, the Muslims get invited and vice-versa.” Passover attracts more Jews to the synagogue than any other holiday. Hundreds of people attend Neve Shalom’s community seder.
Duym, whose grandfather came from Holland as a soldier when Suriname was still Dutch Guiana, says the last rich Jew died a year ago, and nearly all the remaining Jews are poor. “All the other rich Jews left, so we can’t afford to pay a rabbi,” she says.
At one recent Friday-night service, 28 people sat on Neve Shalom’s wooden benches; on a recent Shabbat morning, four people showed up to pray. To preserve its future in the face of dwindling numbers and proselytizing, Neve Shalom gradually has gone from Orthodox to liberal, accepting mixed-marriage couples and non-Jews. But that hasn’t helped. Today, the congregation has only 125 members.
Donk isn’t optimistic about the future of Judaism in Suriname. But he’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet. “We’ve never had any problems in Suriname. Jews have been welcome here since the 18th century, and there was never a problem,” Donk says. Asked about Tzedek V’Shalom, the community leader insists: “It’s impossible for us to maintain right now, but we won’t ever sell it. Maybe someday it will become a synagogue again. You never know.”