Discovering Suriname's Jewish past - and present

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There's not much left of the oldest synagogue in the Americas: just a pile of crumbling bricks covered with moss and inhabited by a handful of speedy brown lizards that scamper into the underbrush as I walk around the remnants of Beracha ve Shalom, established on a hill along the Suriname River in 1685.

The only other visitors on this day, besides my guide and me, are some local Amerindian teenagers, who perch on a corner of the ruins, laughing, flirting and snapping digital photos of one another. In the background, the creeping vines and low-hanging branches of the Surinamese rain forest threaten to swallow up the remaining traces of this ancient place of worship. It's a sad afterlife for a spot that was once home to a vibrant and important Jewish community.

Suriname's Jewish culture forms the underpinnings of much of the country's history, but today, the Jewish community here isn't doing much better than Beracha ve Shalom. Depleted and abandoned, it has dwindled to a population of 200 or so, a tiny fragment of the once-bustling and innovative Jewish presence in this small South American nation. In Paramaribo, the capital, the Neveh Shalom synagogue still stands in the center of town, at the end of Jodenstraat (Dutch for "Jewish street"), but the tiny Jewish community struggles to maintain the traditions that have been passed down for more than 300 years....

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