Arrivals: From Suriname to Jerusalem

A new oleh traces his family to Africa, the Netherlands, Huguenot France, China, Spain and Portugal.

sergio88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The experience and heritage of Binyamin (Sergio) Tjong-Alvares, 32, begins with his birth in Paramaribo, Suriname and extends across - at last count - four continents. The graduate of the School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University "loves Israel and Israelis, and the Middle East in general," and he currently works in multinational marketing. Tjong-Alvares and wife Shira wed in March. Shira, a native of Marin County, California, arrived via Nefesh B'Nefesh. She studied in several religious frameworks after her arrival, and is currently learning Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion. Shira is a yoga instructor, a personal trainer and cook. After completing her studies, she hopes to jump-start a previous career track in the fashion shoe industry. FAMILY HISTORY The roots of Tjong-Alvares's polyglot family tree reach back to African and Creole background, the Netherlands, Huguenot French, China, Spain and Portugal. But his Jewish bona fides are deeply layered into Suriname's soil - going back to the 1600s, as an integral part of Jewish-Dutch migrations throughout the New World. His own travels began at age 13, when he moved to Holland and then to the United States. His is the youngest of three brothers; the other two reside in Amsterdam. Tjong-Alvares's mother serves as a midwife and his father is an architect; both were born in Suriname and still live there. He explains his family name and his Hebrew name, Binyamin Shmuel: "My last name is made up of my father's name (Tjong, pronounced "Chong"), and my mother's name (Alvares). Tjong is the last name of my father's patrilineal Hakka-Chinese ancestry, and Alvares is the last name of my mother's Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic forebears. "The Jewish side of my family was quite assimilated," he says, noting that "Binyamin is the name my mother chose for me after I became religious," he explains, "symbolizing her appreciation for my determination to pursue a spiritual lifestyle which she had fostered since my childhood." His great grandfather's name was Shmuel - Samuel Henriquez de Granada - which he added to his name "as a way to allow him to live on beyond his death in Theresienstadt in 1944. By carrying his name, I want to symbolically ensure his eventual release from the Diaspora." BEFORE ARRIVAL Having made aliya during a stint on a kibbutz ulpan at Yotvata in the Arava, Tjong-Alvares later returned to his family in Suriname. Shortly after leaving a family gathering for his father's 60th birthday, he recalls, "I got on a bus and [the radio] was playing this song, 'Jerusalem,' by [international reggae star] Alpha Blondy" - and then he sings, in Hebrew - "Baruch attah Hashem, baruch attah Yerushalayim...'" Hearing the song amid a long-running uncertainty over his Jewish identity "was like a sign to me," Tjong-Alvares says, "something that sort of grabbed me and told me, 'You know what? That's where you need to go.'" Some time after posting an impressive resume on an Internet site, "I was sitting there in my mom's place and all of a sudden I got this call." A company in Givat Shmuel offered him "an amazing job - the best I've had so far - in international sales and marketing." The offer was the final tap on the shoulder that convinced him to return to Israel. UPON ARRIVAL After settling into a place in Tel Aviv, Tjong-Alvares soon met up with a group of students from Bar-Ilan University who were establishing a small and vibrant young minyan. LIVING ENVIRONMENT The couple rents an attractive three-room apartment on a quiet shady street in the heart of the central Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. It is studded with mementos, souvenirs and family pictures from Suriname and many other points worldwide, but the d cor was "mostly Shira's doing," Binyamin says. CIRCLE Tjong-Alvares still keeps in touch with the predominantly non-religious friends he made while attending ulpan on Yotvata. He also remains close to a group of fellow Tel Aviv shul-goers and former chums from his Jerusalem yeshiva days at Darche Noam/David Shapell College of Jewish Studies. MILITARY After making aliya, Tjong-Alvares says, "I looked forward to joining the army, but was dismissed during my first meeting at Tel Hashomer for being the ripe old age of 27. I decided against volunteering, and looked into other options to serve the country." Despite his eclectic background, he views the army as "one of the places in this country where people truly blend, truly melt into a 'people.'" With a mother-in-law who was evacuated from Atzmona in Gush Katif, he views the Gaza disengagement as a "sad and ruthless event, the depths of which - God willing - few should ever have to understand." LANGUAGES Tjong-Alvares is fluent in Dutch, English and Hebrew, and is conversant in Spanish, Portuguese, Hakka and Mandarin dialect Chinese, French and German. FAITH "I had been searching for a way to connect to this world and that which lies beyond," Tjong-Alvares says of his spiritual yearning. But, "after dabbling in meditative practices and eastern religion, which all lacked the centrality of God, I found a real spiritual outlet in Judaism; a true connection to the creator of the universe." First exposed to Shabbat observance via a friend at a "traditional, egalitarian minyan" in Washington, DC, he says that his decision to adopt a religious lifestyle "lies in my determination to ensure that the religious legacy of my ancestors continues in my family." Taking a "very traditional approach" to religious expression, he says, "adherence to Spanish Portuguese (Sephardic) customs are central to my religious experience. "I believe that what we have to give is spiritual guidance... to guide this world to its kedusha - its holiness, [and] the understanding that there is one God who takes care of everything in this world, who is the be-all and end-all of all things." IDENTIFICATION "My resolution to live in Israel stems from my deep sense of identification with the intense mixture of cultures and peoples, and the familiarity that characterizes their interaction, which is all very similar to Suriname. The main difference with Suriname, however, is that as Jews we share a real connection to one another as we really are a family." FINANCES "It's a struggle to make ends meet; work a little here, work a little there - which was not the case when I was living in Tel Aviv, honestly," he says. But he adds optimistically, "We're getting by." PLANS Hoping to work in Israeli-Sino import-export, Tjong-Alvares has also sought positions with the government and Foreign Ministry. Away from the office, he's also trying to increase his involvement with the Shavei Israel organization that seeks out crypto-Jews worldwide. "We hope to have a family in the near future," he says, and the couple is considering later moving to a nearby suburb. With passports thick with stamps from more countries than many see in a lifetime, Tjong-Alvares now sees his spiral of experiences revolving around his life here: "I feel that I've come home, home to my center of gravity." To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: