Meet the 2 Jews of Guyana, a South American nation with a tradition of religious tolerance

There are at least two Jews living in the tiny South American nation. One is a Guyanese-British-Israeli guesthouse operator. The other is a former Madison Ave marketing executive.

 Georgetown, Guyana  (photo credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Georgetown, Guyana
(photo credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

When Janet Jagan, an immigrant from the United States, made history by becoming Guyana's prime minister in 1997, she was thought to be the country’s only Jew.

In fact, another Jew had recently purchased an island off the coast of Guyana, and 25 years later, there are at least two Jews living in the tiny South American nation. One is a Guyanese-British-Israeli guesthouse operator who has been working in Guyana since the 1970s. The other is a former Madison Avenue marketing executive from Chicago who until recently ran the country’s largest tour operator.

Both offer a window into three dynamics that define Guyana: a government that embraces all faiths, an economy based on extractive industries and an expansive rainforest the country hopes will be a draw for its growing ecotourism industry.

Guyana, an English-speaking country of roughly 800,000, came to international prominence in 1978 as the site of the Jonestown massacre, in which more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones were killed, either by suicide or murder.

Oil-rich Guyana is on track to transform into a wealthy nation 

These days, though, the country is drawing attention for the recent discovery of oil off its coast. ExxonMobil announced the discovery in 2015 and promptly began developing Guyana’s oil resources. With over 11 billion barrels of reserves and producing over 350,000 barrels per day, Guyana is on track to produce more than 1 million daily barrels by 2030, potentially transforming one of South America’s poorest countries.

It was an earlier extractive industry that first brought Raphael Ades to Guyana. Born in Tel Aviv in 1951 to an Italian-Jewish mother and a Syrian-Jewish father, Ades had a peripatetic childhood. The family moved first to Milan when Ades, who goes by Rafi, was 11, after his father Meyer entered the diamond trade, then two years later to southwestern Germany. They landed in Pforzheim, known at the time as Goldstadt because of the prominence of jewelry and precious stone trading locally.

But the family was not yet settled: In 1967, Meyer took the family to London, where Ades finished high school and took his university entrance exams, excelling in all of the languages he had picked up — English, French, Italian, German and Hebrew. As a psychology student at the University of London, Ades began helping his father, who maintained an office in London’s diamond district, at work. His father contracted out the polishing, and one of the polishers was Indo-Guyanese.

 London black cab (illustrative) (credit: REUTERS/TOM NICHOLSON) London black cab (illustrative) (credit: REUTERS/TOM NICHOLSON)

“That day, my dad took out the atlas and started to read up on Guyana,” Ades recalled. “‘This is somewhere I want to go,’ he told me.”

During a trip to visit an Israeli friend in Venezuela, Meyer went on a prospecting trip to Guyana, and registered the Guyana Diamond Export company. When he suffered a heart attack, Ades and his mother flew to Georgetown to be with him. Barely 21, Ades stepped in to take a larger role in the business. He flew with other diamond buyers into the rural mining areas, and learned the operations were producing thousands of carats of diamonds.

“I stayed in Guyana through the second half of 1972 and fell in love with the place,” Ades recalled. “I went to the [main] Stabroek market in Georgetown, seeing all of the iguanas and macaws. When my dad recuperated, I started going back to Guyana myself.”

His mining business thrived. In 1997, he bought Sloth Island, a 160-acre outpost about a two-hour journey from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, requiring an hour-long car ride through the small villages that dot the Atlantic coast, and then an hour’s boat ride down the widening Essequibo River, passing pristine forests lined with mangroves and Indigenous villages.

When Ades bought the property, it was mostly underwater. He brought in workers from neighboring villages to pump out the water, build up the sand and retaining walls and add structures. Sloths were already there, but he brought ocelots and monkeys from neighboring islands, as well as other birds. (The ocelots, he said, used to eat the electrical wires and open the fridge.)

Now anchoring Sloth Island is a blue and white guesthouse, a series of covered huts for dining and hammock relaxation and a wooden walkway for nature walks through partially cleared forest. Indigenous guides identify the numerous species of plants and birds. The pandemic has receded as a threat to business, and the island hosts tourists every weekend — though climate change is presenting new issues.

“There are many times that the river floods part of the island and I lose sand and soil,” Ades said. “We have to keep on pumping out water and repairing damage to the buildings when that happens.”

The year after he bought the island, his widowed mother, then living in Belgium, broke her hip. When she was well enough to travel she moved to Guyana to be with her son, dividing her time between Georgetown and Sloth Island. When she died in 2009, Ades was at a loss given the lack of a Jewish cemetery, synagogue, and minyan required to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. He was interested in burying her across from Sloth Island, on a hill in the mining town of Bartica just across the river. But a Jewish friend from France facilitated a connection with the Surinamese Jewish community, who prepared the body for burial in the cemetery adjacent to Paramaribo’s main synagogue.

“That’s the last time I was in a synagogue, in 2010, after my mother passed,” Ades recalled.

The absence of Jews in Guyana is a notable lacuna in a country that otherwise boasts a broad range of religions. History records a colony of Dutch Jews who settled in northwestern Guyana in the 17th century to produce sugarcane, but the English destroyed that colony in 1666, dispersing the Jewish residents. Jews from Arab lands moved to Guyana in the late 19th and 20th centuries to escape persecution but then migrated elsewhere; Jews fleeing Europe came in 1939 but did not settle long enough to establish a sustained community.

Janet Jagan was an anomaly: Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, she married a Guyanese man in the United States and moved with him to Guyana in 1947. Her father Cheddi Jagan was trained as a dentist but entered politics as Guyana gained independence from Great Britain, serving as the first premier of the semi-independent colonial government in the early 1960s and then as the country’s fourth president in the 1990s. When he died in 1997, Janet Jagan was sworn in as his replacement and then won a term of her own later that year. She died in 2009.

According to the 2012 census, Guyana is about two-thirds Christian, a quarter Hindu, and less than 10% Muslim, with smaller populations of Rastafarians and Baha’is. Guyana’s cities and towns are dotted with churches, mandirs and mosques, and the country has enshrined freedom of religion in its constitution. Christian, Hindu and Muslim holy days are national holidays.

“We embrace all faiths and are always looking to build bridges across communities,” Mansoor Baksh, a leader within the country’s Islamic Ahmadiyya movement, told JTA. Omkaar Sharma, a member of the country’s Hindu Pandit Council, said something similar: “We have a long tradition of co-existence and celebrating each other’s holidays. It’s what makes Guyana special.”

On the occasion of the Hindu festival of Diwali last month, President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, South America’s only Muslim head of government, emphasized the country’s inclusivity when he told the nation: “Under the One Guyana banner, our people are coming together, rejecting the forces of division and hatred, and uniting in the pursuit of peace, progress and prosperity.”

The sentiments have had practical implications for the country’s two Jews. In 2017, when a Guyana Tourism Authority group was slated to travel to Suriname for a conference on travel catering to Muslim tourists, the Mauritanian organizer of the event protested the presence of Jewish participants. There were supposed to be two: Ades, and Andrea de Caires, then head of the country’s largest private tour operator, Wilderness Explorers.

“I got a call from the Guyanese Tourism Minister at 1 a.m., who asked me if I was Jewish, and he explained the situation. And I thought, this [antisemitism] is still going on in the world?” de Caires remembered.

The Guyanese tourism minister refused to abide by the ban, de Caires proudly said, and told the Surinamese hosts and conference organizers: “If Jews aren’t allowed, then none of us are going.” The Surinamese, long known for their religious tolerance, also refused to accept the prohibition, and said that all participants were welcome (in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo, a mosque stands next to a synagogue and they share a parking lot). Both de Caires and Ades attended the event.

“When I arrived at the conference, the Surinamese minister of tourism welcomed me, and the director general of Guyana’s tourism ministry gave me the microphone to open the conference. We [Rafi and I] went in with our heads held high,” de Caires said.

"I knew there was no point in pursuing a relationship if I wouldn’t move to Guyana.”

De Caires

De Caires has lived in Guyana since 2010 but her path to Guyana took a different route from Ades’. Born Andrea Levine in Chicago as the granddaughter of a rabbi, she traveled extensively as a child with her physician father, who taught her the importance of creating a Jewish home.

“Judaism was always a part of my life — we celebrated the holidays, lit candles on Friday night, but my father would often say, ‘Going to temple doesn’t make you Jewish,’” Caires said.

De Caires moved to New Jersey and trained as a jeweler, working with clients that included Tiffany’s. She transitioned to working at Bloomingdale’s in sales and then management, and then she moved on to the cosmetic company Borghese, where she became vice president of sales and marketing.

“I got caught up in Madison Avenue, a single mom of three kids, and then I met Salvador,” she recalled. “And I knew there was no point in pursuing a relationship if I wouldn’t move to Guyana.”

Salvador is Salvador de Caires, her Guyanese husband whom she met through her sister. Visiting Guyana for the first time in 2008, she fondly recalled her first visit to the Karanambu Lodge in the country’s south, a former cattle ranch that is now a conservation hub sitting at the center of Guyana’s forests, rivers, and savannahs. The most accessible route is via airplane from Georgetown and then four-by-four vehicle. While based at the lodge, de Caires continued to take conference calls for her New York-based career, while learning more about Guyana and the business of running a tourist destination off the beaten path. She and Salvador moved permanently to Guyana in 2010 to take over the day-to-day management of the lodge.

“When we moved to Guyana, it never occurred to me there would never be a Jewish community here. There’s a Jewish community everywhere,” de Caires remembered thinking. “That was pretty startling.”

So when they moved from Karanambu in 2016 to work at (and eventually lead) Wilderness Explorers in Georgetown, de Caires was committed to opening her home to Guyanese friends and neighbors with Hanukkah parties and Passover seders.

“The first year we had a Hanukkah party, our invitation went out for latkes and black cake (a traditional Guyanese dish), and we had government ministers, ambassadors and local friends over,” she recalled. “I told the story of the holiday and we lit the candles.”

It wasn’t the first time de Caires had been single handedly responsible for the fostering Jewish traditions in Guyana. She recalled an incident in 2012 when a Colombian-Jewish tourist came to Karanambu Lodge during Passover and asked her to make matzah brei. Under a thatched roof, she was able to make the holiday delicacy for her visitor.

For Ades, too, it is hosting that makes him most appreciate his chosen home in Guyana.

“I will always remember Feb. 1, 1963, the day we left Israel. We had always planned to return,” he said. “But I’m still here. Between then and now I have lived in so many places, and Guyana has been my home for a very long time. One of the best parts of my week is meeting new people who come to Sloth Island — people of different backgrounds from around the world. It is wonderful to welcome them all.”

De Caires plans to share her Jewish traditions once again next month, hosting another Hanukkah party for her Guyanese friends and neighbors. And with the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, both Ades and de Caires are looking forward to booming tourist seasons. De Caires and her husband are also ready to begin a new professional chapter: They recently accepted new positions with a Guyanese conglomerate to develop its tourism operations at a riverine resort.

Does de Caires feel like she has lost something by establishing roots in a place without an established Jewish community?

“If I left here, that would mean there’s one less person to support others [including Jews],” de Caires replied. “I think it’s interesting Rafi and I are both in tourism — you need to have a lot of tenacity, but it’s important that we welcome others to this beautiful country.”