The first Birthright group from Suriname paid an emotional visit on Sunday to a new exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem showcasing the unique heritage of that nation’s Jewish community.
Several of the group’s 15 members wept as they entered a room where curators had reassembled an 18th-century synagogue that originally stood in Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo. It is one of four synagogues chosen by the museum to highlight the diversity of Jewish communities around the world.
Baruch Lion-Arons, a native of Paramaribo, who made aliya 25 years ago, addressed the young members of his community.
“I am tremendously proud of this moment,” he said. “Some of you, I pray, will come here and make aliya, and some will stay in Suriname and become the leaders of the community there, so that 150 years from now we will still have a proud community.”
Jews from England and Holland first arrived on the steamy shores of Suriname, a country in northern South America, in the mid-17th century in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. They were descendants of Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition and set up an extensive network of interconnected trade posts and plantations throughout the Caribbean on islands such as Curacao, Jamaica and St. Thomas.
For about 150 years the Jews thrived in the tropical Suriname. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the local economy crashed following the abolition of slavery and the Jewish community entered a long and steady decline. Today there are about 200 Jews there.
Amanda Laret, 22, a participant on the free, 10-day tour offered by Birthright Israel to Jews aged 18-26 from around the world, spoke about her connection to Judaism growing up in Paramaribo.
“We aren’t religious; we would go to synagogue on High Holy Days but not
every Shabbat,” Laret said. “I know the Hebrew alphabet, we were taught
by rabbis who would come for short stays, but not as well as I’d like
Laret, who is studying art history in Amsterdam, said she probably would
never have come to Israel without Birthright. However, after six days
of touring the country she said she felt deeply changed.
“I always felt Jewish, it’s everything to me,” she said.