Pride, joy and tears

The first Birthright group from Suriname was overcome with emotion as it visited the Israel Museum’s reconstruction of the country’s synagogue.

Suriname Jews 311 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Suriname Jews 311
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
With tears of pride, 16 young adults from the 200-member Jewish community in Parimaribo, Suriname, openly wept Sunday as they marveled at the recently restored Zedek Veshalom Synagogue, rescued from ruin in 1999 from their tropical South American homeland and now restored as one of four historic Jewish houses of prayer on exhibit at the Israel Museum.
“I hope it gives you honor to be represented here among the [Jewish] communities of the world,” Tania Coen-Uzzielli, curator of the museum’s Skirball Department of Judaica, told the youngsters, who were part of the first Birthright group from Suriname.
“A visit like yours we don’t have every day,” Roni Peled, the Israel Museum’s director of special events, told the group.
But the biggest jolt on the emotional roller coaster came when Lea Farkash, whose family left the former colony of Dutch Guiana in 1962, some 13 years before the country gained independence as Suriname and who now lives in Jerusalem, begged the delegation – many of whom are her second and third cousins – “Don’t assimilate.”
Zedek Veshalom, a neoclassical wooden building built in 1736 and modeled on the Esnoga – Amsterdam’s landmark Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – is so important to Farkash that she and her husband, Alexander, arranged the bar mitzva of their son Asher there in March.
“The synagogue was at that time not officially opened, but we received special permission and a tour by the management of the museum especially for the occasion of the bar mitzva,” she explained.
Farkash’s Parimaribo-born mother, Juliet Emanuels, who moved to Israel from Amsterdam this August, was similarly impressed by the newold synagogue. “I was married there,” she remembered wistfully. “My whole family were members.
I went there since I was five years old.”
She recalled how the synagogue’s sand floor was raked clean before Shabbat and how the children would race to see who would leave the first footprint.
Farkash’s sister Hannah Lindwer remembered how a swarm of bees attacked her when she opened the abandoned synagogue’s Torah ark in 1999 and how that stinging experience led her and her husband, Willy, to initiate the salvaging of the remaining appurtenances of the abandoned Sephardi house of worship. (Today the Jewish community worships together at Parimaribo’s historic Ashkenazi Neveh Shalom Synagogue.) Many of the Taglit participants, aged 18 to 26, had similarly emotional experiences. “It’s special and sad,” said Bueno de Mesquita. “I remember it as a child.”
Renate Bechan noted, “I remember sitting upstairs on Yom Kippur, lighting a candle. It brought back a lot of emotions by seeing it.”
Benjamin Duym, a descendant of Don Isaac Abrabanel, the leader of Sephardi Jewry before the expulsion from Spain in 1492, also recalled the synagogue from his childhood. “I don’t remember it like this exactly. It was more beautiful. It’s very nice that the whole world can see this now.”
His cousin Daniel Duym spoke about seeing the restored synagogue and the State of Israel: “I feel amazed. I had a vision, but it was nothing like this.
I don’t have any words to describe my feelings as a Jew. I feel I’m home again – in a strange country.”
Like many of the Suriname youth, Duym expressed an interest in settling here. “I want to come to Israel. I think next year is my chance. I have one more year of school, and then I’m coming.
I really love it here. Israel is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen in my life.”
When Duym comes on aliya, he’ll be joining other Surinamese like Binyamin Tjong-Alveres, who moved here a decade ago and lives in Hashmonaim, where he works as a marketing communication consultant.
“It’s a very special experience to see everyone here,” he said. “My family wasn’t involved in the Jewish community growing up. My family was ahead of the game in assimilating.”
Like many people in Suriname (pop. 470,000), Tjong-Alveres is of mixed ancestry. Besides Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, the multiracial society includes people of Dutch, British, Portuguese, Javanese, Chinese, Indian, African, Middle Eastern and native South American descent. Neveh Shalom, the remaining synagogue in the capital Parimaribo, forms part of a multicultural landscape that includes historic mosques and Hindu temples.
Tjong-Alvares is optimistic about the future of the Jewish community in his place of birth, a community that has its roots in the flight from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and in the European colonization of the Americas nearly four centuries ago, and today is anchored in the Nederlands Portugees Israelitische Gemeente (Dutch Portuguese Jewish Association). “In today’s age of the Internet, it’s hopeful,” he said. “It’s not like 100 years ago when people were really separated.”
Still Tjong-Alvares expressed the hope that the Birthright trip will trigger a wave of immigration. “Please God, they’ll all come to Israel.”
Not all the Suriname youth shared that sentiment. Elvira Arrias, a medical student at Parimaribo’s Anton de Kom University, the only institute of higher education in Suriname, stated: “My family is there.
I want to be with my family. That’s what keeps me there. If they came here, I would come in an instant.”
The free 10-day Suriname Birthright trip was supported by Kulanu, an organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities worldwide, and by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.