12 September 2010

Jewish Dutch architecture in Suriname

A newly restored C18th synagogue from Suriname is a treasure that has been transported to Israel & installed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The museum’s new wing, dedicated to Jewish Art and Life, was reopened to the public in July 2010. Here visitors can view the lovely South American synagogue interior, alongside synagogue interiors from Italy, Germany and India - a pilgrimage of Jewish ritual traditions from around the world, all in one day.

But why did Jews flock to Suriname in South America in the first place?  And why did they not move into Cuba, Bermuda, Jamaica or Curacao as we saw in Caribbean Jewish Communities just a few months ago?

Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo - exterior and interior

Suriname’s first European community emigrated from the Netherlands in the mid-17th century. It was then that the Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had eventually ended up in the Netherlands after the Iberian expulsions, immigrated to Dutch Guiana/Suriname. In fact the Jews were among the country’s earliest European settlers.

Some historical records refer an early, wooden synagogue in Suriname that was built in the 17th century in Thorarica, Suriname's first Capital. Certainly the numbers were there: there were 92 Portuguese Jewish families and 12 German Jewish families in the colony, giving 570 persons who had holdings of 40+ plantations. However nothing remains of Thorarica township today.

Thorarica's Jewish community eventually moved to Jodensavanne, a settlement on the Suriname River, 50 km south of the capital Paramaribo. Later another, more organised group migrated to Suriname and headed straight for the Jodensavanne area. A third group arrived in 1664, after their expulsion from Brasil. Jodensavanne (Dutch for Jewish Savanna) was specifically established as an autonomous Jewish territory, dedicated to sugar-cane plantations.

The Jodensavanne community really did acquire great internal autonomy. The Congregation Beracha ve Shalom/Blessings and Peace was founded, building a wooden synagogue for itself in the years 1665-71. A second synagogue, made of imported bricks, was constructed in 1685.  This community became the heart and soul of the entire colony of Suriname.

Sadly Jodensavanne declined during the mid C18th, and most of the Jewish community moved to Paramaribo. In any case, the remnants of the colony were destroyed by fires in 1832. All that survives today is the beautiful Jodensavanne grave yard with its European-imported marble grave stones; they are a silent witness to the wealth and success of a once-impressive colony.

Jodensavanne graveyard

In the newer capital city of Paramaribo, the original wooden Neve Shalom Synagogue building was constructed in 1719 by Ashkenazi Jews. But circumstances changed and, like in other New World cities, the synagogue had to be enlarged to its current size in the mid 1830s. This building is the only active synagogue today in the country, serving the entire Jewish community (now only 300 people). Suriname itself is small. The smallest independent country in South America has a total population of only 480,000 people.

Within a very short time, the local Sephardic community wanted their own synagogue and built Tzedek v' Shalom Synagogue. Tzedek v’ Shalom, built in 1736 in Paramaribo, was typical of Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in the New World. According to Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, this Suriname synagogue was directly inspired by the Esnoga, the famous Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam.

Tzedek v Shalom Synagogue exterior, still in Paramaribo

Tzedek v Shalom’s architecture sensibly integrated traditional European design with local architectural features such as a simple, symmetrical structure; white walls and large windows that open the interior to natural light; and a sand-covered floor. Impressive brass chandeliers, sourced from the Netherlands, hung from the ceiling.

Tzedek v Shalom Synagogue interior, moved from Paramaribo to Jerusalem

Nearly one third of the population of Suriname emigrated back to the Netherlands in the era just before independence was declared in 1975. Apparently Suriname citizens feared that the new country would fare worse under independence than it did as distant Netherlandish colony, but it was very damaging to those who remained.

The Jewish community also lost the heart and soul of its membership in these couple of years. The two Paramaribo synagogues continued functioning but, finally, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations merged in 1999. Tzedek v’ Shalom ceased to function as a place of worship and the space was rented out. The synagogue’s interior, along with its original ceremonial objects and furnishings, were transferred to Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1999, where it has now been restored to its original beauty.

Suriname (in green) on the north coast of South America

Two references worth pursuing. "The Synagogues of Surinam" by Gunter Bohm, in the Journal of Jewish Art, Vol 6, 1979. And "Way South of the Border" in Tablet Magazine, 8th Dec 2014.


H Niyazi said...

Fascinating post Hels!

That has me thinking about the early Jewish communities present in Tasmania(when it was still Van Diemen's Land) during colonial times. Are you aware of any architectural remnants of that part of Tasmania's heritage?


Hermes said...

I love learning things like this - thanks.

Hels said...

H Niyazi, wouldn't that be an interesting comparison (although the Suriname synagogues are mid 18th and not mid 19th century buildings).

Jews arrived in Tasmania right from convict days, and the earliest use known by Europeans of the area occupied by Windsor Court in Hobart is as ‘the Jews Burial ground’ in 1828. But there were no organised congregations established until the 1840s, in Hobart and Launceston.

Judah Solomon left his pregnant wife and 10 children in England when he was deported to Van Diemen’s Land with his brother Joseph in 1819. Judah Solomon eventually owned Temple House, on the corner of Argyle St and Liverpool St Hobart but the state governor wouldn’t grant land for the erection of a formal synagogue. Judah Solomon gave part of his estate for the construction of the Hobart Town synagogue, consecrated in 1844. The Hobart Synagogue in Tasmania is the oldest still standing in Australia.

I don't know what the Tasmanian synagogues looked like, but examine the Ballarat Synagogue of 1861: http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2010/05/ballarat-synagogue-1861-working-and.html

Hels said...

Hermes, until the Suriname synagogue interior was moved to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I too had never seen it. I loved the main Amsterdam synagogue and I loved the Suriname interior.

H Niyazi said...

very interesting Hels! Cheers for the link about the Ballarat building! I will keep an eye out for it next time I'd down that way.


P. M. Doolan said...

Very interesting though it is a little bit sad to hear that a synagogue is in a museum in Israel rather than serving as the focal point for a living community. Alas, independent Suriname has been plagued by instability.

Hels said...

PM Doolan, exactly. How can any nation survive the loss of almost a third of its citizens, especially its educated citizens? The Jewish community was gutted, but Suriname fared very badly as well.

Karen said...

I came to this site, searching for comments about Judah Solomon (my great, great, great grandfather). The Hobart synagogue is still looking wonderful. Here is a link:

Judah arrived apparently with money from the Jewish congregation in Sheerness, UK. He was lucky in that early in Tasmanias history, convicts werent sent to gaol, but instead were able to do work. Judah set up shops, owned warehouses, and lent money. He eventually assisted the Batman and Faulkner expedition from Tasmania to establish Melbourne. A truly amazing story!

Hels said...

thanks for sharing that... I wish Judah Solomon was my ancestor. He was very effective in tough times.

I took photos last time I was in Hobart, so the time has come to write a post about the synagogue for this blog.

Happy new year to you :)

Hels said...

thank you. I think it was important that the Suriname community could integrate traditional European design with local architectural. It looks terrific.

Habib Zaman said...

What a wonderful post. I thinks its very helpful to us. Thanks a lot for sharing.

Clipping Path Job said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tablet Magazine said...

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.

Hels said...


thank you. I had no idea why Suriname lost so many of its educated population, especially in a rather short time. What a tragedy for those who left.. and even more, for those who stayed.

websenor infotech said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Thank you for your interest, websenor.

All advertising is deleted automatically, but I would love to hear what you thought of the post.

Kamlesh Vyas said...

Hey Hels,
How are you?
Which Theme are you using on this Blog?
these theme is Responsive and also looking awesome.
can you share the theme detail with me.

Hels said...


I am interested in the history, art history and architecture of Britain and its Empire, Europe, the Mediterranean and North America, 1640-1940. What about you?

spine seo said...

very informative article thanks for the suggestion. Great post
I love listening about history.

Hels said...

spine seo

good on you! There are not too many people interested in the Dutch history in Suriname.