A group of young adults from the tiny, 200-member Jewish community in Parimaribo, Suriname, marveled at the recently restored Zedek ve-Shalom Synagogue, rescued from ruin in 1999 from their tropical South American homeland, and now lovingly restored as one of four historic Jewish houses of prayer on exhibit at the Israel Museum here.
"I hope it gives you honor to be represented here among the communities of the world," Tania Coen-Uzzielli, curator of the museum's Skirball Department of Judaica, told the youth on Sunday. Many were clearly overwhelmed with emotion.
"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, who now lives in Jerusalem but whose family left the former colony of Dutch Guiana in 1962 — 13 years before the country gained independence as Suriname — begged the delegation, many of whom are her second and third cousins: "Don't assimilate."
Zedek ve-Shalom, 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 Mitzvah of their son Asher there in March.
"The synagogue," she said, "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 Mitzvah."
Farkash's Parimaribo-born mother, Juliet Emanuels, who moved to Israel from Amsterdam this August, was similarly impressed by the new-old shul.
"I was married there," she remembered wistfully. "My whole family was members. I went there since I was 5 years old."
She remembered how the sand floor of the synagogue was routinely raked clean before the Sabbath, and how the children would race to see who would leave the first footprint.
Farkash's sister, Hannah Lindwer, recalled how a swarm of bees attacked her when she opened the abandoned synago-gue'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 Neve Shalom Synagogue.
Stirring Up Emotions
Many of the Birthright participants, aged 18 to 26, had similar 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 catastrophic expulsion from Spain in 1492, also recalled the synagogue from his childhood, saying, "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," he said. "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 whole life."
When Duym comes on aliyah, he will be joining other Surinamese like Binyamin Tjong-Alveres, who moved here a decade ago and today lives in Hashmonaim, where he works as a marketing communications 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 (population 470,000), Tjong-Alveres is of mixed ancestry. Besides Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, the multiracial society includes those of Dutch, British, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, African, Mideastern and native South American descent. Neve 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 with roots in the flight from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and in the European colonization of the Americas nearly four centuries ago. These days, it is anchored in the Nederlands Portugees Israelitische Gemeente (Dutch Portuguese Jewish Association).
"In today's day and 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 a wish that the Birthright trip will trigger a wave of immigration: "Please God, they'll all come."
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, said: "My family is there. I want to be with my family. If they came here, I would come in a blink."
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