How a Sefardic synagogue found new life in an Israeli museum
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz
Few synagogues are dismantled in their country of origin and assembled in a museum in another country.
One of them, the Tzedek v’Shalom synagogue, originally built in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname in 1736, has been housed in the Israel Museum of Jerusalem for more than 30 years.
Besides Tzedek v’Shalom, three other original synagogues are exhibited in The Synagogue Route in the Jewish Art and Life Wing of the museum: the wooden synagogue from Horb, in southern Germany; the Kadavumbagam synagogue from Cochin, in southern India; and the synagogue from Vittorio Veneto, in northern Italy.
The Jewish community of Suriname started to decline in the 19th century and Tzedek v’Shalom held its last service in 1992, closing its doors for good in the late 1990s. The building itself still stands and now houses a computer repair store.
In the summer of 1999 Dr. Iris Fishof, then Curator of the Judaica and Jewish Ethnography Wing of the museum, traveled from Israel to Suriname to conduct negotiations with representatives of the Jewish community about preserving the synagogue and its objects.
The logistic and technical challenges of the transfer of the synagogue, as well as a historical overview of Suriname’s Jewish community, are described in Tzedek v’Shalom: A Synagogue from Suriname in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, a book edited by Tania Coen Uzzielli and published by the museum in 2010.
Organized Jewish life began in Suriname under the English in the 1650 and flourished under the Dutch, which took over the territory in 1667. Until 1975 Suriname was known as Dutch Guyana.
Made up mostly of Jews of Portuguese origin hailing from Amsterdam, the community settled at the end of the 17th century in a town known as the Jodensavanne (Jewish Savanna), along the upper Suriname River.
The community left the Jodensavanne and moved to Paramaribo, 10 miles away, where a community of Ashkenazi Jews already existed. In 1736 the Sefardic community built Tzedek v’Shalom, initially called casa de oracao (Portuguese for house of prayer), in that city, where Ashkenazi Jews had built a synagogue the year before.
A unique architectural style
Tzedek v’Shalom was designed in the “Spanish and Portuguese architectural tradition,” as Coen Uzzielli calls it, following several of the features of the Esnoga (Ladino for synagogue), in Amsterdam, built between 1671 and 1675 by architect Elias Bouman.
Those features can be seen in the interior of several Dutch-Portuguese synagogues around the world: lateral aisles, a main nave, an ark and a teva, or bima, at opposite ends, and brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Built also in that architectural tradition are Bevis Marks, in London; Touro synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in New York City, both in the United States; Mikve Israel Synagogue, in Williemstad, Curacao; Shaare Shalom, in Kingston, Jamaica; Congregation Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasadim, in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Kahal Shalom, on the island of Rhodes.
Brought to the Israel Museum as well were several ceremonial objects belonging to Tzedek v’Shalom, such as Torah finials of different shapes and styles; a Torah crown; a Hanuka lamp; omer calendars; candle sticks; and a charity box, among others, most of them made in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Larger objects, such as benches for the community leaders and the rabbi, as well as a Torah ark, or heikhal, all made of ebony, cedar and mahogany in Paramaribo in the 1800s, give the room a solemn aspect.
The museum is now closed to the public. For further reading, visit https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/380506.
© Daniel Santacruz