Fifteen years ago, I stumbled across a reference to Jews in the Caribbean while paging through a guidebook as I was planning a vacation. Jews in the Caribbean? Who knew? I began reading voraciously. I learned that 375 years ago—in 1638—a small band of Sephardic Jews whose families came originally from Portugal and Spain by way of Holland, Italy, and Recife, Brazil, set up camp on the banks of the Suriname River 30 miles south of where it spills into the Caribbean. These people—some Jews, some New Christians returning to Judaism, all fleeing the Inquisition—established what is one of the oldest permanent Jewish settlements in the New World.
Soon thereafter, I saw mention of a volunteer opportunity to help restore a Jewish cemetery in Jodensavanne (“Jews’ Savannah”) the former Jewish plantation settlement in Suriname across from where the original settlers landed. I signed up. Before I knew it, I was there. Swathed in DEET and working under the relentless tropical sun, about a dozen and a half of us, American Jews and Surinamese, scattered flour over the heavy flat five-foot-long gravestones, arrayed on the ground in uneven rows like scattered dominoes, slowly revealing Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Aramaic, and Dutch inscriptions honoring people dead hundreds of years. The inscriptions appeared against the dark stones like ghosts.
Over the years, my interest in the Jews of Suriname never flagged. Three years ago, I returned to Suriname, accompanied by a photojournalist. This year, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah there, wanting to catch up with the community and find out how it was faring.
Despite their extraordinarily rich history, Jews have a dwindling presence in Suriname, South America’s least-populous country, squeezed between Guyana and French Guiana. The community, estimated at about 100 members and counting, is, like many small Jewish communities in isolated portions of the world, having a difficult time. But additionally, the community is in conflict over how it defines Judaism and who is Jewish. Combined with a lack of resources and an absence of spiritual leadership, the community is, despite its history, struggling to survive.
Mention Suriname, as I have, and most people ask: That’s in Africa, right? Part of Indonesia? Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a different story. It was such a prosperous colony, thanks to a booming sugar industry based on slave labor, that its Jewish community sent funds to help establish Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York City. Originally controlled by the British, it was ceded to the Dutch in the Treaty of Breda in 1667 in exchange for New Amsterdam. The Dutch thought they had made out like bandits.
That history has a deep personal resonance for many of the current congregants. Lilly Duym, the administrator of the synagogue and often the glue who holds the congregation together, who nudges and goads people to go to services, is a descendant of the Abarbanels, who came in the third group of Jews from Amsterdam. Marina da Costa grew up in Suriname, lived in Holland for 30 years, and returned to Suriname seven years ago to start a Jewish heritage tour company, taking visitors out to Jodensavanne either by outboard motorboat or on a rickety ferry. She can trace her family back to Baruch da Costa, the cantor of the original settlement. M.A. Visbeen, known by everyone as Don (in reference to the noble title that he said was bestowed upon his family by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492, the same year as the expulsion of the Jews), is another. The first Del Castilho, his mother’s name, was born in Suriname in 1652.
Yet the pull of family history is as strong, if not stronger, for those whose ties to Judaism were severed sometime in the past. I first met Shawn Wong, an ethnically Chinese man who works in his family’s prosperous import-export business, three years ago. Over a decade before, up late trolling on an Internet genealogy site, Wong discovered an ancestor who was the daughter of the first rabbi at Jodensavanne. A year or two following his discovery, after studying with a rabbi in Florida, he converted. Even when I first met him, he was talking about doing a further Orthodox conversion. “I want to be just like Isaac Nieto from Suriname—the level that I lost it, that’s the level that I want to pick up. It’s not that I want to be a modern Jew or a Liberal Jew or Reform Jew. I just want to be Jewish,” he told me late one night at the end of my most recent stay in Suriname. He talks about moving to Israel or the United States to study to become Orthodox.
The current congregation calls itself “Liberal,” what Americans would consider Conservative, according to an American Jew who lived for many years in Amsterdam. It meets in the Neve Shalom synagogue, built in 1837 and next-door neighbor to a mosque, as Surinamese tourist literature prominently mentions. As everyone says, including the East Indian cab driver who dropped me off there on Shabbat: “Here, everybody gets long peacefully. Not like Europe.” Originally built as the Ashkenazic synagogue, the building became the home of the united congregation when the Ashkenazic and Sephardic congregations consolidated in 1999.
It was in this synagogue 15 years ago that I had an experience that perhaps ignited my initial interest in the Jewish community in Suriname. After returning from Jodensavanne to Paramaribo, the capital, I decided to attend Saturday morning services out of curiosity. It is a beautifully maintained white clapboard building lit by brass chandeliers, with white sand on the floor (said either to be a remembrance of the Exodus or the Inquisition, to muffle conversos’ feet when secretly worshipping). Seeing the women’s balcony, I climbed the stairs and took a seat. When I looked down I watched five men, two black and three white, performing the Shabbat service. I had just come from Jodesavanne, where more than one gravestone described someone killed in a slave rebellion. Could these black men trace their heritage back to a Jewish plantation owner and his black female slave?
Much later, doing historical research, I discovered that Jewish plantation owners sometimes circumcised their sons and educated their daughters by slave women and in some cases left money in their will for them or even freed them after their deaths. For several years during the 18th century, there was a separate Creole synagogue a few blocks from where the Neve Shalom synagogue sits. Clearly conversion didn’t mean equality. And yet those men I observed in 1999, whose ancestry I could only imagine, identified as Jews.
As an American, brought up in a society where race and ethnicity are often in competition and where identity politics can rule, I was intrigued by Suriname. When slavery was abolished in 1863, indentured workers from China, India, and Indonesia were brought in to replace the freed Africans. They joined a society that included the Maroons (descendants of African slaves who escaped, fought bitter wars against slaveholders, and built separate societies in the interior), Creoles, and Amerindians. I was reminded of all that history by the faces at the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah this year.
Yet while the congregation is made up of more variations of skin tone than would be found in the vast majority of American synagogues, there is tension over what version of Judaism is celebrated there. The decision to combine the synagogues came after years in which both synagogues were shuttered following independence from Holland in 1975. In 1980, an Idi Amin-type army sergeant, Desi Bouterse, seized power with 15 other military men in a coup. He closed down all newspapers except one and in 1983 was responsible for a notorious massacre—of journalists, union leaders, and activists—resulting in the deaths of 15 prominent opponents, an event that became known as the December Murders. A guerrilla war against the government raged for a decade. Many Surinamese—Jews and non-Jews—left the country, and both synagogues closed.
In the early 1990s a group of younger people appealed to René Fernandes—a wealthy Jewish businessman who owned the Coca-Cola bottling plant, the McDonald’s franchise, a string of bakeries, and other businesses—and with his support united the two congregations. The newly conjoined congregation was declared Liberal, rather than Orthodox. Yet while women do not sit in the balcony, men sit on one side of the synagogue and women sit on the other, except for a couple of women who pointedly and silently sit on the “men’s” side.
Marina Da Costa is one of those women and also has an interesting path back to Judaism. Her father was a Surinamese Jew who was studying in the Netherlands at the beginning of WWII. He joined the anti-Nazi underground but lost his brother, sister-in-law, and their two children in Auschwitz.
Returning to Suriname with his wife, a Dutch Christian, and their children, he was adamant about not raising his children as Jews, because he questioned the very existence of a God who would permit such a genocide. It was his non-Jewish wife, Irini, who became caught up in researching the history and genealogy of the Jewish community in Suriname. When her children were growing up, says Marina, her mother would take them to the Jodensavanne cemetery to clear off gravesites and sprinkle flour on them to document the inscriptions, much like our group did 20 years later.
Da Costa, with Visbeen and Cathrin Judell, spent eight months organizing a commemoration of the 375th anniversary of the original settlement. The celebration, scheduled to take place this October, was to extend over six days and to include the unveiling of a monument to the 102 Surinamese Jews killed in the Holocaust at Jodensavanne, services at the synagogue, and a musical finale with participation by a variety of musical groups across Suriname’s ethnicities. Judell traveled to Aruba and Curacao to raise funds, and someone in Amsterdam tried to raise money as well. Other than those three, there was very little support in the synagogue, evidence of the stresses and strains across the tiny community. The commemoration was canceled—put off, hopefully, until next year.
One of the people who did commit money is Jacob Steinberg, who Duyn refers to as their “guardian angel.” Steinberg is a Jewish Canadian from Toronto who first visited Suriname over six years ago. An employee of a company that works on infrastructure in developing countries, he was walking down a street in Paramaribo and saw Hebrew, he said. He found the synagogue—everyone knows where it is, even if they call it the “Jews’ church”—and has been involved since then as the congregation’s advocate, fundraiser, and a bridge between schisms, both personal and religious, that have arisen in the community as their numbers have fallen.
Steinberg calls himself “a part of the community in exile.” Over six years he has gone down to Suriname every several months to offer help. He is the community’s intermediary with a variety of American and Israeli Jewish organizations. “I schlepped from one Jewish organization to another,” he said. “No one had any idea where Suriname was.”
Steinberg started Chai Vekayam, a membership organization that financially supports the Jewish community in Suriname and has helped them restore the Paramaribo cemeteries (which had become overgrown, trash-filled refuges for crack addicts) and helped provide the community with matzohs and kosher wine for Passover, among other things. He created a website for the synagogue community and writes a newsletter for Chai Vekayam members. As a way to raise money, he helped broker a deal with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to lease the insides of the original Sephardic synagogue in Paramaribo, which now forms the centerpiece of their permanent collection of synagogues from all over the world.
Steinberg works closely with Kulanu, a 20-year-old organization based in New York committed to “supporting isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.” Money from Kulanu, from Steinberg’s own Toronto synagogue, and the community helped to send 18 Surinamese young people to the United States, from where they left for a 2010 Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel.
The congregation had hoped that the trip, which took years of planning and pushing to raise funds for, would help create the next generation of leaders in the congregation. That hasn’t been the case. Rosh Hashanah services this year drew 12-15 people, fewer than I remembered being at services when I was down there three years ago in the summer. The bigger issue is that there is no rabbi and hasn’t been a permanent one for 40 years. At one point during the Rosh Hashanah services there was a long discussion on the bimah in Dutch between the cantor, who is self-educated, and a visiting congregation member now living in Curacao about the direction in which the services should go. The only siddurs they have are Orthodox ones in Hebrew, which only a few in the congregation can read.
For four months in late 2009 and early 2010, American Rabbi Haim Dov Baliak, originally from California and now helping to revive the Jewish community in Warsaw, served as the congregation’s rabbi. He married people, ran introduction to Judaism and Hebrew classes, supervised conversions, and organized a Hanukkah party that drew 80-100 people.
Baliak worked with and converted Catherine Judell and her daughter. Judell’s father was a secular Dutch Jew who, after fighting in the resistance during WWII, was about to be sent to Indonesia to put down the anti-colonial insurrection that led to Indonesia’s independence. Not wanting to participate, he traveled to Suriname and eventually married the woman who became Judell’s mother, who was part Amerindian, part Chinese. A non-practicing Jew (“though he did like his matzoh,” Judell says), he did not raise his children to be Jewish. He was a journalist, and the family fled Suriname after the December murders. Judell, with her two children, returned in 2000. After years of thinking about it, she decided to convert.
For the congregation at Neve Shalom, somebody like Judell, choosing to become Jewish (or returning to Judaism) could be key to the survival of the Jewish community.
Three years ago when I was in Suriname, I sat in the synagogue office with Duym as she went over the list of congregants.
“She passed away … he went to Holland … he went to Holland … he passed away … he went to Brazil … she went to Australia [her own daughter, with her husband and two kids] … she passed away … he moved to Israel.” One after another, she crossed off names with a red pen.
Yet who is Jewish and how they are welcomed into the congregations is one of the fraught questions. At Rosh Hashanah services I met Richard Veldbloem, a dark-skinned man who works at a bank in a township two hours away from Paramaribo. He drove two hours there and two hours back for both days of Rosh Hashanah services as well as Friday night Shabbat services. His father was Jewish and his mother was not, but he has come to feel a strong connection to Judaism. Yet when I asked one of the mainstays in the community about him, the response was, “He’s not Jewish.”
The belief in the halakhic matriarchal Jewish lineage runs strong here, despite the fact that most young people intermarry, which is obviously a personal choice, a recognition of the tiny size of the Jewish community and also an acceptance and pride in the multiethnic gumbo that is this tiny country.
How the small Jewish community in Suriname defines the form of Judaism it wants to practice and how it handles people like Judell or Veldbloem or others exploring Judaism will play a part in whether the community will survive. In addition, the community needs to find a rabbi, “a shaliach,” Steinberg calls that person, who would be interested in leading the community for two to three years at a time.
Without a spiritual leader, as so many members of a variety of persuasions I talked to said, they will have a beautiful synagogue and restored cemeteries, but fewer and fewer Jews.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.