Originally created 02/05/01

Centuries-old synagogue in Suriname becomes computer center



PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Plagued by high maintenance costs, the tiny Jewish community in Suriname has rented out one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere for a computer shop and an Internet cafe.

"We had to do this to save the synagogue," Jewish community leader Dennis Kopinsky said.

But some in this former Dutch colony in South America are unhappy about the 265-year-old Sedekwe Shalom Synagogue's unlikely transformation.

Nathalie Brunings, an Adventist, compared it to the Bible story in which Jesus drove merchants out of a Jewish temple because he found it disrespectful. "If Jesus came here right now he would get real angry," Brunings said.

The synagogue, a white wooden building erected by Sephardic Jews, is a landmark in Paramaribo, the capital. It was built in 1736, Surinamese historian Andre Loor said -- a date that would make it four years younger than the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue on the Dutch island of Curacao, which claims to be the hemisphere's oldest continuously used synagogue.

Over more than two centuries, the "once flourishing" Jewish community of Suriname has dwindled to about 200 people, according to the Israel Museum. The museum in Jerusalem has been displaying 18th century artifacts the Surinamese congregation sent when it cleared out the interior of the synagogue -- benches and all -- two years ago.

The congregation's decline echoes the waning fortunes of other Jewish communities, many of them with roots in medieval Spain, who arrived in the Caribbean with the first European colonists.

Kopinsky said the Sedekwe Shalom congregation has only about 60 members now, and they now worship at the only other synagogue in town.

"I know in my heart I am not happy with a business center housed in a synagogue, but under the circumstances it was the best decision possible," Kopinsky said.

But some Surinamese feel protective of the landmark, regardless of their faith.

"This is outrageous," said businessman Maurice Issa, a Roman Catholic. "How on earth could they do this?"

Suriname's Catholics have been struggling to restore their 116-year-old wooden cathedral in Paramaribo, which has not had a service in nearly a decade. Many other colonial buildings have rotted or burned down.

"I am Catholic and I cannot imagine a business center in the cathedral," said Daniel Satimin, who was using the Internet at the synagogue's cyber cafe.

To preserve the synagogue's religious artifacts, the community dismantled the interior and sent everything to the Israel Museum for 10 years for display and restoration.

The exhibit, "All the Way from Suriname," features 18th-century items including an 8-foot-tall menorah -- or candelabra -- and a Torah with silver and jeweled ornaments.

The airy space they occupied now has computer cables, monitors, and desks where visitors tap out e-mails. An air conditioner is tucked into one of the tall windows, which are topped by small semi-circle windows in the Dutch colonial style.

Part of the building is taken up by a workbench where proprietor Jimmy Rosheuvel -- a member of the congregation -- bolts together new computers for customers.

Like Kopinsky, he believes the synagogue's transformation was the only way to save it.

"We in Suriname are always so emotional," Kopinsky said. "Look around Paramaribo and see what emotions have done to many of our historic buildings."