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New Jews of Cote d’Ivoire

(JTA) — Avraham Yago, a married father of five who works as a linguistics professor at the University of Abidjan in the West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, has visited Israel four times to learn about Judaism and practice his Hebrew.

Yago, 64, grew up without any religious affiliation. As a teenager, however, he embarked on a religious journey that led him, by way of Christianity as well as studies at the Kabbalah Center in Abidjan, to Judaism.

“For me, the Torah is the truth,” he told JTA from Abidjan, the country’s largest city.

Suriname Jewish Community

Man in front of Holocaust memorial in Suriname

Several rivers come together in Suriname. It is also a place of cultural convergence. Though it is the smallest country in South America, bordered by French Guiana, Guyana, and Brazil, its population is one of the continent’s most diverse. Among its many peoples is a small community of Jews.

Jewish history in Suriname began in the 1630s. In Portugal, the Inquisition left Jews no choice but to convert to Christianity, unlike the Spanish Inquisition which gave Jews the option to leave Spain. Those Portuguese Jews who could do so went into exile. Many escaped to Holland in 1600 where freedom of religion was introduced. From there, in 1639 and 1652, two groups of Jews made their way to Recife in northern Brazil, and on to what is now Suriname. The groups settled in Thorarica and Cassipora Creek, on the banks of the Suriname River. The Jews established sugar plantations which became the backbone of the country’s economy.

In 1652, Sir Francis Willoughby, the British Governor-General for the West Indies  claimed the country for England and recognizing  the Jews’ importance to the colony, the British colonial government granted them special privileges: freedom of religion, permission to build synagogues and Jewish schools, the right to their own court of justice, and a private civic guard. These special privileges made Jews of Suriname the only Diaspora community ever to have complete political autonomy before the founding of the State of Israel.

In 1664, after the French occupied Cayenne (French Guyana), a third group of 200 Jews followed the Amsterdam-born colonizer David Nassy to Suriname. In 1667, Holland and England signed the Second Breda Treaty. As part of the agreement, Suriname was given to Holland in exchange for New Amsterdam (today’s New York City) that went to England. The Dutch retained the special Jewish  privileges. In addition, David Nassy was granted by the Dutch the right to establish a colony he called Jodensavanne, (Jewish Savannah), also known as “The Portuguese Jewish Nation” or “Jerusalem on the River”. The Jews from Thorarica and Cassipora moved to Jodensavanne.

For over 100 years the Jews enjoyed freedom and prosperity. By 1737, Jews owned 115 of Suriname’s 400 plantations, and hundreds of slaves. The success didn’t last forever. Between 1765 and 1795, social, political, and financial changes caused the collapse of the plantation economy.  Most Jews left the Jodensavanne and moved to the new Capital city Paramaribo, where they traded their agricultural past for new lives as professionals, merchants , artisans, and peddlers. In 1832 on Sept. 10, a fire raged through Jodensavanne, destroying everything, including the 147-year-old synagogue. The jungle has reclaimed what little was left.

Today’s Jewish community is a remnant of the past, but is determined to survive. In 1999, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities merged, and changed from Orthodox to Liberal. There is no longer a rabbi; the cantor directs the services at the magnificent Neve Shalom Synagogue, built in 1835. In 2008, the community completed the renovation of the 148-year-old Mikvah with the help of donations. Currently, the community is made up of about 100 members. Recently, the community completed the renovation of the former Rabbi’s apartment, and it is now rented to tourists and guests, a tempting spot for a fascinating visit.

Kulanu Canada is helping this historic community in many ways. In 2016, Canadian funds helped to create a Holocaust Memorial Monument commemorating the 105 Surinamese Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, and we’ve provided financial help to support the importing of matzoh and kosher wine for Passover.

FROM TORTILLAS TO TORAH – The Jews of Guatemala

At an evening program hosted by City Shule on December 4, 2017, and co-sponsored by Kulanu Canada, representatives of Adat Israel of Guatemala City talked about their journey to Judaism, showed slides of their small community of recently Reform converted Jews, paid homage to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein who is their spiritual leader and rabbi of Toronto’s City Shule, and engulfed their audience in the love they expressed for Judaism.

Jeannette Orantes, whose husband Moshe Isaiah was the inspired founder of the community, and their daughter Rebecca, recounted the community’s history and shared personal accounts of their religious exploration and study of Judaism. The community had a chance encounter with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein when she was on a voluntour program in that country, about 6 years ago. Their relationship has enabled the community to experience more of Jewish life, to be connected with Kulanu, have rabbis and teachers visit, and to have their youth experience a summer at a Jewish camp in Ontario.

Kulanu Canada helped promote a community wide Pesach Seder for the members of Adat Israel and their guests in 2016, and shares their story here to encourage more support to this small but mighty congregation.

Film night Celebrates Jewish Diversity: Doing Jewish, A Story from Ghana

On November 12, 2017, Kulanu Canada presented the film Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana. The movie is the creation of filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha, who was in attendance and captivated the nearly 100 people in the audience with both her informational film and her warm and animated personality. The event was co-sponsored with Na’amat Canada and we are appreciative of their partnership.

We learned that the Sefwi Wiawso is a small (and at the same time large) group of committed people that has long identified as Jewish. Gabrielle interviewed everyone from the tribe, from the children to the elders. It was fascinating to hear them pray and sing in Hebrew, and learn how they followed many Jewish traditions before knowing the label “Jewish”. The person about whom the film focused was their community leader, Alex Armah, a dedicated young man whohas very passionately worked to educate his community about Judaism and though this to hold his community together as Jews.

Gabrielle Zilkah

A special feature of the film was Gabrielle’s focus on trying to answer many questions about the Sefwis, about their history, about the possibility of their being one of the lost tribes of Israel, about their potential future and about their inclusion (or exclusion) in the wider Jewish global community.

The search for these answers was poignant and thought-provoking for all who claim to be Jewish.

As Gabrielle so introspectively points out, it is not enough to “be” Jewish, as so many of us in North America claim; it is important to “do” Jewish and carry out, as well as carry forward, the traditions which have existed for thousands of years. Upon whose shoulders will this responsibility lie?

Challah covers from Ghana

Kulanu Canada is determined to help the Sefwi Wiawso to continue to exist on their Jewish terms. To that end, we have been selling their beautiful, colourful, hand made challah covers with funds going back to the community for their guest house.

Thank you to all who attended the evening and have helped us to continue to support this amazing community.

We look forward to seeing you at our next events. Please sign up for ongoing information about future programs and information about the communities we support.