Historic Suriname Jews Thriving Once More

Published: October 8th 2010
in News » World

Neve Shalom Synagogue
Pic: Jacob Steinberg
Inside the synagogue.
Pic: Jacob Steinberg
This year's birthright Israel participants.
Pic: courtesy of Jacob Steinberg

Most people know very little about Suriname. If you ask them to pinpoint the location of the country, you will get all sorts of wrong answers. Asia. Africa. A South Pacific island.


Even many South Americans only have vague knowledge of the tiny nation, as it is the only place in South America that speaks Dutch and is therefore very isolated.


For most of his life, Jacob Steinberg was no different. The Toronto resident’s knowledge of Suriname – formerly the colony of Dutch Guiana, it sits north of Brazil, sandwiched between Guyana and French Guiana – amounted to what he had heard about while living in Holland. During part of that time, Suriname was going through a civil war and most Dutch Jews assumed that the members of Suriname’s small but once thriving Jewish community had already left.


They were not totally wrong. After Suriname was granted independence from Holland in 1975, almost 35 per cent of the country’s population left, including many Jews. During the civil war in the late 80s, more community members departed.


However, a fateful trip two and a half years ago changed Steinberg’s life. He was on business in Suriname as a consultant for a gold mining company. The company was looking to open a mine in the jungle – Suriname, being extremely rural, is over 90 per cent jungle – and Steinberg was hired partly because he can speak Dutch.


One Sunday morning he went for a stroll through Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo. “The buildings and its old colonial houses are beautiful. Paramaribo is a UNESCO heritage city. There are boulevards with mahogany trees. It’s fascinating.”


He recalls that he suddenly saw a beautiful building. As he got closer, he saw Hebrew writing on it. He was shocked. He said to himself, “Wow, this looks like a synagogue.”


His office was nearby the building, so Monday at lunch he walked over and talked to a woman who turned out to be the vice president of the Jewish community.


“I started to ask her, ‘Lilly, who are you?’ because she looked white but with Asian eyes.”


Lilly told him that the community was descended from Portuguese Jews. “I was fascinated,” Steinberg told Shalom Life. She further said that her own family is descended from the distinguished Barbinel Sephardic clan. Steinberg went online and Googled the name. The Barbinels are a family who can trace their lineage directly back to King David.   


Steinberg was floored. “I’m standing in the middle of the jungles of the Amazon and I’m talking to a descendent of King David!”


Steinberg attended the synagogue’s services every day for the next three weeks, falling in love with the people and vowing to do something to improve their situation. They were not in contact with other South American Jewish communities because of the language barrier; the Dutch Jewish community treated them as second class citizens because Holland is still very class based and they are Jews from a former colony; they hadn’t had a rabbi in over 40 years; they had no access to kosher food or teachers to educate their children about Judaism; and besides financial aid, they needed many Jewish items such as mazuzahs (the Dutch community would charge them as much as $200 to send them plastic mezuzahs with photocopied parchment).


“I saw how desperate they are, how isolated,” he says. “Nobody knows about them. Nobody cares about them. They were on their own.”


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