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Education | History Jodensavanne | Beraha VeShalom Synagogue

Beraha VeShalom Synagogue

 

The ruin of Beraha VeShalom, Blessing and Peace synagogue, at Jodensavanne represents the first synagogue of any architectural significance in the New World and is the main focal point of the Monumental Area. The synagogue consecrated 1685 and constructed a few meters away from its beth-ahaim has remained in use until 1865.

Frankel and Ben-UR have researched the archival documents of the community seeking information on the architecture of the synagogue. They have investigated the most significant collection of documents available; those which are the records of the community of Jodensavanne now held in the Dutch State Archives. Some of these documents are available on microfilm and the team has translated and analyzed them. They have discovered some historical information on the formation, culture and architecture of the synagogue of Jodensavanne.

Much remains unknown about this important New World synagogue. The architect or master builder remains unknown, but the synagogue in Amsterdam must have inspired him. Although the architectural style differs a great deal, the interior plans show a remarkable likeness. The bricks that have been used are originally from Europe. Which part of the ruin is original and which part has been reconstructed and is not authentic, is not yet clear. Although the synagogue was the most important building of the Jewish community for more than one and a half centuries, the historic record is very incomplete. No plans, original specifications or interior sketches of the synagogue remain or are thus far known to exist. There is no information at all until 1791. From that time on, there are a number of short and vague descriptions by travelers visiting the synagogue, and a few watercolor paintings on which one can see the building far in the background.

The New World Jews of Jodensavanne sited their synagogue in accordance with Talmudic interpretation, placing the synagogue upon a hill and making it the tallest building in the town. Additionally, the synagogue was adjacent to a river; convenient for accessing naturally flowing water for the purification rituals. This happened in the midst of many threats to their safety, namely: raids and revolts from slaves, maroons living autonomously in their newly established villages in the interior, rival European powers, and indigenous Americans. They designed their town as if in a perfect world, in a place of peace and Messianic hope, with open roads and ample access from all four sides to the synagogue.

 

( The Jodensavanne Synagogue and its cemetery viewed from Cordon Path)


The building was constructed in a Dutch Vernacular Style, with a steep pitched roof. At first glance, it seems strange that a Portuguese Sephardic synagogue was built in a Dutch vernacular style. But it was common practice that the Jewish community hired non-Jewish architects and craftsmen to design and build their public buildings. Beraha VeShalom was two stories high (33 feet) and one could see the roof from the river, higher than every other building surrounding the synagogue. The building had two pointed gable-walls on the short sides. The ruin measures 94 feet along its east west axis and 43 feet across its north south width. A wooden fence, painted black, with four identical gates at each side surrounded the building. In an unprecedented and bold urban design, the synagogue and its broad open plaza were constructed at the center of an idealized geometrical town plan featuring a monumentally-scaled rectilinear village square, met by four cross streets with large houses built at each corner. Unlike synagogues preceding it in Europe, Beraha VeShalom had no separate auxiliary buildings buffering it.

The synagogue was used for all functions that come with this kind of building: religious services, administration of justice, and instruction. The floor was covered with sand, just as in the subsequent houses of worship in Paramaribo. This could have been a reference to the journey of the Jews through the desert. It could be however, that it is a tradition that comes from the days that Jews had to practice their religion with the utmost secrecy and used sand on the floor to muffle their footsteps. Another explanation mentions the reduction of fire risks. The Hechal, the chest where the Scrolls of Law (the Torah) are kept, also known as the “ark”, was situated on the east side. It was of beautiful architecture, and ornamented with very well executed sculptures. The Tebah, the reader’s platform, was on the west side. Also on the west side, was an elevated gallery, from where the women partook in religious service. The congregation should be enabled to see both Hechal and Tebah, so the benches (for the men, on the ground floor) were placed in east west length, in a bifocal layout. Four large wooden pillars resting on the second and fourth foundation corbels on both sides, from the eastern wall, carried the arched ceiling. Below the women’s section there would have been a room where the regents held their meetings and an archive.

Though many inhabitants had left Jodensavanne during the first half of the 18th century, people kept coming back during high-holy Sephardic days. The centenary of Beraha Ve Shalom was on October 12, 1785. Almost 1,600 people participated in the celebration of this event: 300 different dishes and a thousand Chinese lamps heightened the festive atmosphere. Documents from the years 1820s mention extensive repair jobs on the roof and new windows on the western façade, indicating that the synagogue was well maintained.

 

 

( Illustrative reconstruction of Beraha VeShalom by Dikland in 1999)

 

The Surinamese Architect, Dikland has prepared a reconstruction attempt based on the few and incomplete descriptions and paintings. Detailed architectural plans, or detailed technical descriptions, except for a roof repair contract of 1823, were not available.

The last time the synagogue was used was in 1865. In 1873 its roof collapsed and no subsequent repairs were made. Due to its isolated location, the site has long been neglected and has deteriorated. Furthermore, prior attempts to stabilize and preserve the remains have, to some extent, resulted in in-authentic reconstruction.

 

 

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