[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Seth Wikas for the The Times of Israel:
When Janet Jagan, an immigrant from the United States, made history by becoming Guyana’s prime minister in 1997, she was thought to be the country’s only Jew.
In fact, another Jew had recently purchased an island off the coast of Guyana, and 25 years later, there are still at least two Jews living in the tiny South American nation. One is the purchaser of the aforementioned island — a Guyanese-British-Israeli guesthouse operator who has been working in Guyana since the 1970s. The other is a former Madison Avenue marketing executive from Chicago who until recently ran the country’s largest tour operator.
Both offer a window into three dynamics that define Guyana: a government that embraces all faiths, an economy based on extractive industries and an expansive rainforest the country hopes will be a draw for its growing ecotourism industry.
Guyana, an English-speaking country of roughly 800,000, came to international prominence in 1978 as the site of the Jonestown massacre, in which more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones were killed, either by suicide or murder.
[. . .] It was an earlier extractive industry that first brought Raphael Ades to Guyana. Born in Tel Aviv in 1951 to an Italian-Jewish mother and a Syrian-Jewish father, Ades had a peripatetic childhood. The family moved first to Milan when Ades, who goes by Rafi, was 11, after his father Meyer entered the diamond trade, then two years later to southwestern Germany. They landed in Pforzheim, known at the time as Goldstadt because of the prominence of jewelry and precious stone trading locally.
But the family was not yet settled: In 1967, Meyer took the family to London, where Ades finished high school and took his university entrance exams, excelling in all of the languages he had picked up — English, French, Italian, German and Hebrew. As a psychology student at the University of London, Ades began helping his father, who maintained an office in London’s diamond district, at work. His father contracted out the polishing, and one of the polishers was Indo-Guyanese. “That day, my dad took out the atlas and started to read up on Guyana,” Ades recalled. “‘This is somewhere I want to go,’ he told me.”
During a trip to visit an Israeli friend in Venezuela, Meyer went on a prospecting trip to Guyana, and registered the Guyana Diamond Export company. When he suffered a heart attack, Ades and his mother flew to Georgetown to be with him. Barely 21, Ades stepped in to take a larger role in the business. He flew with other diamond buyers into the rural mining areas, and learned the operations were producing thousands of carats of diamonds.
“I stayed in Guyana through the second half of 1972 and fell in love with the place,” Ades recalled. “I went to the [main] Stabroek market in Georgetown, seeing all of the iguanas and macaws. When my dad recuperated, I started going back to Guyana myself.”
His mining business thrived. In 1997, he bought Sloth Island, a 160-acre outpost about a two-hour journey from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, requiring an hour-long car ride through the small villages that dot the Atlantic coast, and then an hour’s boat ride down the widening Essequibo River, passing pristine forests lined with mangroves and Indigenous villages. [. . .]
The absence of Jews in Guyana is a notable lacuna in a country that otherwise boasts a broad range of religions. History records a colony of Dutch Jews who settled in northwestern Guyana in the 17th century to produce sugarcane, but the English destroyed that colony in 1666, dispersing the Jewish residents. Jews from Arab lands moved to Guyana in the late 19th and 20th centuries to escape persecution but then migrated elsewhere; Jews fleeing Europe came in 1939 but did not settle long enough to establish a sustained community.
[. . .] According to the 2012 census, Guyana is about two-thirds Christian, a quarter Hindu, and less than 10% Muslim, with smaller populations of Rastafarians and Baha’is. Guyana’s cities and towns are dotted with churches, mandirs and mosques, and the country has enshrined freedom of religion in its constitution. Christian, Hindu and Muslim holy days are national holidays. [. . .]
On the occasion of the Hindu festival of Diwali last month, President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, South America’s only Muslim head of government, emphasized the country’s inclusivity when he told the nation: “Under the One Guyana banner, our people are coming together, rejecting the forces of division and hatred, and uniting in the pursuit of peace, progress and prosperity.”
The sentiments have had practical implications for the country’s two Jews. In 2017, when a Guyana Tourism Authority group was slated to travel to Suriname for a conference on travel catering to Muslim tourists, the Mauritanian organizer of the event protested the presence of Jewish participants. There were supposed to be two: Ades, and Andrea de Caires, then head of the country’s largest private tour operator, Wilderness Explorers.
“I got a call from the Guyanese Tourism Minister at 1 a.m., who asked me if I was Jewish, and he explained the situation. And I thought, this [antisemitism] is still going on in the world?” de Caires remembered.
The Guyanese tourism minister refused to abide by the ban, de Caires proudly said, and told the Surinamese hosts and conference organizers: “If Jews aren’t allowed, then none of us are going.” The Surinamese, long known for their religious tolerance, also refused to accept the prohibition, and said that all participants were welcome (in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo, a mosque stands next to a synagogue and they share a parking lot). Both de Caires and Ades attended the event. [. . .]
“When we moved to Guyana, it never occurred to me there would never be a Jewish community here. There’s a Jewish community everywhere,” de Caires remembered thinking. “That was pretty startling.”
So when they moved from Karanambu in 2016 to work at (and eventually lead) Wilderness Explorers in Georgetown, de Caires was committed to opening her home to Guyanese friends and neighbors with Hanukkah parties and Passover seders. [. . .]
[Photo above: Andrea de Caires, left, shown with her husband Salvador, is one of two known Jews in the English-speaking nation. (Courtesy of de Caires) via JTA.]