On August 17, 1665, the English governor of Suriname extended a series of special privileges to the Jewish settlers of the colony. These privileges, which remained in place for more than 150 years, made Suriname’s Jewish community the world’s only one with political autonomy until Israel was founded in 1948, according to the community’s website.
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European exploration of what became Suriname, a tiny state on South America’s northeastern coast, began in the 16th century, with the earliest settlements established in the 17th century by the English and the Dutch.
The first Jews arrived in 1639, when the English allowed a group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to migrate from Recife, Brazil, to Torarica, on the Suriname River, a little south of the present capital of Paramaribo. They immediately set up sugar plantations, with expertise brought from Recife.
More Jews came in 1652 and 1664 and set up communities on the Cassipora Creek, some 50 kilometers south of Paramaribo. The privileges granted to the Jews on this day in 1665 reflected the economic contribution the community made to the colony, which changed hands several times between the British and the Dutch. Those privileges included not only freedom for the Jews to practice their religion and build synagogues and schools, but to have their own court and militia.
When the Dutch conquered Suriname in 1667 they reaffirmed these rights and privileges. (The same year, as part of the Treaty of Breda, Holland and England agreed to swap Suriname for New Amsterdam, which the English renamed New York. )
Two years later the Dutch permitted David Cohen Nassy, a European-born Jewish entrepreneur, to set up a new settlement near the Cassipora Creek outposts. It was called Jodensavanne (Jewish Savanna), with its residents also referring to themselves as the Portuguese Jewish Nation.
Jodensavanne lasted from 1669 to 1832, after which the site was swallowed up by the jungle. While it thrived, however, it was an economic powerhouse. By 1694 its Jewish residents numbered 570; they owned some 40 sugarcane plantations employing around 9,000 slaves. By 1760, out of around 400 plantations, more than a quarter are believed to have been Jewish-owned.
The Jews of Suriname built several synagogues. The remains of the brick Bracha v’Shalom, erected in 1685 in Jodensavanne, can be visited along with its beautiful cemetery. The Ashkenazi Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, an elegant white wooden structure first constructed in 1719 and rebuilt a century later, is still in operation today. And the Sephardi Zedek v’Shalom Synagogue, built in Paramaribo in 1735, has an interior reconstructed in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum four years ago.
During the 18th century, a number of blows to the plantation economy led to the decline of Jodensavanne and the migration of most of its Jewish residents north to Pararmaribo. Until 1832 they would return to their former home to celebrate holidays, but there were frequent attacks on Jodensavanne by escaped slaves.
On April 2, 1825, the Dutch canceled the special privileges that Suriname’s Jews had held since 1665. On September 10, 1832, most of the structures at Jodensavanne, including the Bracha v’Shalom Synagogue, were either destroyed or badly damaged by a fire.
Although political developments in the 1970s and ‘80s, including a civil war, caused most of Suriname’s Jewish population to depart, the country still has some 200 Jews. With the help of donations from around the world, they maintain the Jewish sites.