Celebrating the High Holidays in Suriname

By Jacob Steinberg

Our Torah readers Moriyah and Yehudah Webster and our Hazan (Cantor) Jules (Shul) Donk.

We were delighted to have the Websters as our Torah readers during the High Holidays at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Suriname. Moriyah and Yehudah, a father and son team, conducted one of the most memorable Rosh Hashanah services I have ever attended. This year we had a “full house”: more than 70 members and some international guests attended the services.

The afternoon Tashlich along the Suriname river was also attended by more than 20 participants.

Tashlich is the ritual performed at a large, natural body of flowing water such as river, lake, sea, or ocean, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. The ritual is performed with small pieces of bread which are thrown into the water to symbolically cast off our sins. The ceremony includes reading the source passage for the practice, the last verses from the prophet Micah (7:19), “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

Blowing the Shofar with Moriyah Webster (Left), Benjamin Duym and Jules (Shul) Donk.

We were also delighted to host some very special visitors who came to celebrate the High Holidays with us. Among them: David London from the U.S., who also generously donated towards the Holocaust Memorial Monument; Eddie and Rose Aziman from Canada; and Ron Reeder from the Netherlands. We are always happy to host visitors and special guests.

After the Rosh Hashanah services, we made a wonderful visit to the Judensavanne (the Jewish Savannah) and Cassipora Creek, where the founders of the Jewish community lived between 1635 to 1865.

The Websters in front of the remains of the “Bracha ve Shalom” (Blessing and Peace) synagogue in the Jodensavanne. From Right to Left: Yehudah, Moriyah, Shaloma and Keturah

The Websters

In 1998, Moriyah Webster moved with his wife Shaloma and their young kids Keturah and Yehudah to Guyana to help start a new church. At that time Moriyah was a minister with the Worldwide Church of God. They settled in a small remote farm where the kids were homeschooled by Shaloma.

Moriyah started learning Hebrew, reading the Torah, they kept Shabbat and the Jewish holidays and every Shabbat they were reading the Torah and each Aliya in both Hebrew and English. As a result of Moriyah’s fascinating dream, they have decided to totally commit themselves to the Torah.

Upon their return to the U.S. in the year 2000, the family joined a synagogue in New Jersey and started their Giyur (conversion) process. The kids, then 7 and 9 years old, studied in a Hebrew school. The family became fluent in Hebrew and Moriyah became a Torah reader in the synagogue and Yehudah, who was an exceptional student, started tutoring kids for their Bar Mitzvah before his own. Later, Moriyah and Yehudah also became Hebrew teachers in the Hebrew school and Keturah was teaching Hebrew while attending Brown University. Recently Yehudah graduated from both Colombia University (Major in Anthropology) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Modern Jewish studies).

Today, Moriyah and Shaloma are living in New Jersey, where Moriyah is a software developer and a vice-president at the investment bank Morgan Stanley. Keturah is back home after working a year and a half in Rwanda. Yehudah, while studying in New York City, started a small business of tutoring kids for their Bar Mitzvahs. The business grew so rapidly that today he has 12 employees! Yehudah is planning to start studying for his masters degree in the very near future.

A historic visit to our synagogue

On Tuesday, September 12, the Bishop of Paramaribo, Karel Choennie, paid an historic visit to our Neve Shalom synagogue together with a Roman Catholic delegation. “It has always meant a lot to me to get to know the Christian roots better. And this is a lively Jewish community where the Torah is read and explained,” says the Bishop. The visitors were guided by members of our Board of Directors.

Bishop Karel Choennie (Right on the Bimah) with the Jewish Community President Shul Donk. Our Board
member Don Visbeen is guiding the visitors

Bishop Karel Choennie (Right on the Bimah) with the Jewish Community President Shul Donk. Our Board member Don Visbeen is guiding the visitors

“The Jews have come to Suriname because of the persecution by the Catholics,” said Bishop Choennie, “And yet we live in good friendship with each other for so many years. That is very special. Their hospitality and kindness are symbolic.”

After visiting the synagogue, the delegation visited the Holocaust Memorial Monument. Many of the visitors did not know that there were also Surinamese Jews killed during World War II. “Here is a piece of Surinamese history,” says the Bishop. He recommended that everyone visit the synagogue and experience a piece of holiness and peace.

Like the other visitors, Bishop Choennie also finds the floor of the synagogue very special. “Each time you walk in, you are reminded that Jews were once slaves and had to pull through the desert for freedom.”

The relationship between our community and the Roman Catholic church in Suriname is based on mutual respect and good friendship.

The Paramaribo Museum Day drew record visitors to our synagogue

On May 27, the city of Paramaribo organized a Museum Day. In order to encourage the residents to learn about the history, culture, and the arts, all of the museums in the city had free admission.

To our big surprise, our small museum in the synagogue attracted the most visitors with an estimate of more than 3,000 people who visited our museum, listened to presentations in the synagogue about the history of the Surinamese Jewish community, visited the old tombstones from the old Sephardic cemetery, the over 130 years old Mikvah (a bath used in Judaism for the purpose of ritual immersion to achieve ritual purity) and the new Holocaust Memorial Monument for the 105 Jewish community members who died in Europe during the Holocaust.

We’d like to thank all the volunteers and our wonderful sponsors who made this special event a great success.

Ambassador Moti Amihai Bivas and his wife Ayalah in the Goodbye ceremony at our synagogue

Saying goodbye to the Israeli ambassador to Suriname

In July, we said goodbye to Mordechai (Moti) Amihai Bivas, the Israeli ambassador (non-resident) to Suriname.

Ambassador Amihai Bivas was a strong supporter of our community. He helped organize special events and regularly participated in our ceremonies. We wish Ambassador Amihai Bivas best of luck with his new position as the Israeli Consul for cultural affairs in North America (based in New York City). He will be missed!

Yigal Kopinsk, Suriname’s Judo Champion competing in the Maccabia Games.

Suriname participated in the Maccabiah Games in Israel

For the first time ever, a member of the Suriname Jewish community participated in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. In July 2017, Yigal Kopinsky, 31 years old, competed in the judo men’s 66 kg events. Yigal also competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro representing Suriname, where he made it to the second round, but lost. We are very proud of Yigal’s athletic achievements!

Naresh’s new house.

Building a house for a special person

In an unfortunate set of events, our synagogue caretaker, Naresh, lost all of his assets and became homeless. In the last year, Naresh lived on the floor of our community hall. We felt that this was an unacceptable situation, so the community decided to build a small home for Naresh on our grounds so he can live in dignity. The house is now completed and he will be moving in soon.

I’d like to thank Lilly Duym and Norma Steinberg for their contribution to this article and to Lilly Duym, Joan Duym and Ranu Abhelakh from Suriname Star News for their photos.