World religious leaders could learn a thing or two from the tiny Jewish community in Myanmar (Burma). This little Myanmar synagogue welcomes everyone and has become a beacon of ecumenism in this primarily Buddhist country. As a result, curiously enough, it has also become one of Trip Advisor’s Top Ten places to see in Yangon, the country’s capital.
“I credit my father, Moses Samuels,” says Sammy Samuels of the Trip Advisor recommendation. Sammy and his sisters, Shana and Dinah, have taken over from his late father, as caretakers of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon (Rangoon). ” Under my father’s care, the synagogue welcomed everyone. He never asked if they were Jewish. If they were interested, he would explain about our history.”
The building dates to 1896 and is virtually unchanged. Outside, the Star of David makes an incongruous addition to the streetscape in this busy, distinctly Muslim quarter.
The street outside the quiet courtyard is bustling with a multicultural melange of shopkeepers and pedestrians. Inside it is peaceful.
The interior has been lovingly maintained by the tiny congregation. In the centre of the main sanctuary, surrounded by cane-panelled seats, is the bimah (the raised platform where the Torah is opened and read).
Above, a simple wooden ceiling features a blue and white Star of David motif. The women would have been seated in the balcony, overlooking the proceedings.
Once a vibrant, lively community numbering more than 3.000 members, only 20 Jews still remain in the whole country, just 11 of them in Yangon. “In 1930, the mayor of Rangoon was Jewish,” says Samuels. “The Jewish school had 200 students. There was everything the community needed, even a kosher wine store up the road, near the Jewish cemetery.”
But when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, most Jews fled to India. “For the Japanese, the problem actually wasn’t religion,” Sammy explains. “But the Jewish community had close ties to the British.”
While many returned after Burmese independence in 1948, the series of military coups and political upsets which followed resulted in an exodus to Australia, America, and Israel. By 1962, when the military took firm control, nearly everyone had left.
Keeping the faith
Through it all, the Samuels family remained. Sammy’s grandfather, Isaac Samuels, made Moses promise to care for the synagogue, and since 2015, this solemn responsibility has been passed on to Sammy. His two sisters, Shana and Dinah take turns greeting the 40-50 visitors that, thanks to Trip Advisor, come each day to see the little temple. “It saddens me that my dad can’t see this,” says Sammy. “He was delighted if just two or three visited.”
Most synagogues boast only two or three Torahs, the large scrolls which contain the Books of Moses – the first five books of the Bible. “We used to have 126 silver-covered torahs,” says Samuels sadly. “They were lined up behind the three large doors at the back. But when our people left Burma, they took with them the scrolls their families had donated, in order to keep them safe.” Today, only two intricately wrought silver torahs remain.
As a place of worship, this little synagogue remains a focus for the few remaining faithful and for visiting diplomats who might be Jewish. For High Holidays, the community invites a rabbi from North America. With expats and visitors, they might have as many as 60 people. “Often, guests come from other countries specifically for a High Holiday service,” explains Samuels. “Their families might have come from Burma, or they just want to be a part of it.”
Bringing the community together
But this little community takes welcome to extraordinary lengths. In 2011, as the military junta opened the country to the outside world, Moses Samuels decided they needed a celebration. That Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, 350 people of every religion gathered for the celebration. “We invited local Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. The American and Israeli Ambassadors came.”
And, he adds with pride, “Aung San Suu Kyi also came.” The elected leader of Myanmar had been under house arrest for more than 20 years.
He added, “Each one lit a Hanukkah candle. It was so wonderful to see all these religions getting together. In other parts of the world this might be impossible, but here, it was such a happy event.”
Samuels adds with a huge grin,”We may be only 20 but we make a big impact!”
As Myanmar opens its doors wider and more visitors start to come to this beautiful country, the little synagogue will continue to host them. Indeed, Sammy’s company – Myanmar Shalom Travels – has organized many tour groups. They come to Myanmar to see the magnificent golden stupas of Buddhist temples. But many make a detour to the corner of Mahabandoola and 26th Streets to see this unassuming little temple to a very different faith.
The reaction is always the same. Young people in cut-off shorts, backpackers, smartly dressed Europeans and Americans – they wander in, look around, then stand still at the sight of the interior. “Most of these people have never seen the inside of a synagogue,” smiles Sammy. “And probably never will again.”
Does he worry about the future? “I love this country. Myanmar is mainly Buddhist and people generally respect one another. We are all affected by that mutual respect,” he says. “Besides, we’re such a small community; we’re no threat to anyone.”
The Myanmar Jewish community is undoubtedly small in numbers, but they offer a wonderful example to their own community and to the world. As Sammy says, in a country of many millions, this small community makes “a big impact”.
Want to know more about Myanmar? Check my story at East West News Service