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Return to Rangoon and the race to restore Print E-mail

The modern Jewish community of the Union of Myanmar little resembles the community it once was when nearly 2,500 Jews lived and thrived there. For Hong Kong Jewish resident, Stuart Spencer, this ‘return home' was an eye opening experience.

Apartment building where Stuart Spencer's grandparents and mother lived

Though Stuart Spencer never lived there, this was the birthplace of his mother and his grandparents. He made this trip with his cousin Diane Cohen, who was born into the Jewish Burmese Community and left when the community mostly dissolved in the early 1950s.

Spencer’s mother’s birth record

Much of the community had already fled during the time period beginning with World War II. From there she joined the rest of the family in India. In addition to India, as a natural choice because they were technically considered to be British subjects, many other Jewish residents made their new homes in the UK, the US and in Israel.

What took this Jewish family to the remote corners of the world to places most Jews will never visit and likely know very little about? As Spencer explains, his family, like many other Baghdadi Jewish families made the move to Burma in the 1880s. His family, the Cohen family, was enticed by reports back from other Jewish community members who had already settled in Burma and found conditions to be favorable, business opportunity plentiful and religious freedom accessible.

Stuart Spencer in his family’s former synagogue
 Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
 (from left) Ian Friedman, Lynne Friedman, Diane Cohen and a local guide

Likewise, much of the draw, for his family and for many of the other Baghdadi families was the opportunity to be under British rule and the promise this offered them. These Jews, unlike their counterparts that remained in Baghdad, were now the benefi ciaries of true opportunity and life without religious prosecution and discrimination. His family was drawn by the fact that Burma was predominantly Buddhist, a faith and way of life that was known for its openness and welcoming.

Burma likewise was strategically located in a geographical setting that was plentiful in abundant natural resources as well as strategically located across the Bay of Bengal, a port of great promise at the time.

His family, like the majority of the other Baghdadi families, initially made their home in the bustling capital of Rangoon. The community was centered by the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, built in 1896 by the Sassoon family. It still stands and while it ceases to be used for regular worship, it is an incredible monument to the wealth and spirituality of it members. In its glory, this community housed its 126 Sifrei Torah there. As Spencer points out, not surprisingly, it bears a remarkable resemblance to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, built in the same period and built and founded by the same families.

The Cohen family and most of the Jewish families, lived in a cluster around the synagogue.

For the city and the Jewish community, the 1920s were a time of great prosperity. The city, built on a grid, was booming with development and growth of industry. As the Jewish community prospered, many began goon where they were able to establish grand estates.

As Stuart Spencer tells, his family thrived in this environment of religious freedom, social freedom and economic wealth.

His great-grandfather, Abraham Cohen, was a well-known man and held the position as the head of the tight-knit Jewish community for many years.

He was a respected optometrist and maintained an optometry store, but his great wealth was amassed with the establishment of a rickshaw business. Spencer explains that this was the mode of transport in those days for the privileged class and their family enterprise was something of a monopoly, quickly becoming the only company you would call for transport.

He said that the Baghdadi Jews were known for their entrepreneurial skill and the relative freedom that life in Burma offered them allowed many of them to flourish. It was a time of prosperity where they benefi ted from a life of great excesses, many household servants, spacious homes, a plethora of cultural and social activity and acceptance in society.

Jewish cemetary in Rangoon

He also though cautions that the community was not immune from problems. He was told that intermarriage became a substantial problem and many of the Jewish community members took the liberty of selecting a second local wife, often Muslim.

By 1951, the last of his family, his mother’s cousin, Diane Cohen, left Burma and by 1960, he notes, so did 99% of the Jewish community. Most of the Jews had already fled the Japanese during World War II where they were in danger as suspected British sympathisers.

Stuart Spencer’s grandparents and mother fled to Calcutta in 1942. For over sixty years, the Cohen family thrived in their home of Burma. There are records of births and marriages and deaths.

Among these, he was able to easily locate the hand written record that lists his mother’s birth. There are handwritten ledgers listing financial deals and property transfers. In addition to these records, the shul still stands as does a crumbling cemetery, in its original 91st Street location, in real danger of destruction.

Spencer walked through this crowded cluster of between 600 and 700 graves. A second Jewish cemetery, outside Rangoon, has already been destroyed to make way for residential and industrial development. Spencer’s family members were buried in this 91st Street cemetery, dating back to 1876, though he was unable to locate their graves. The fate of the final resting place of his family is now in the hands of the Yangon City Development Committee.

While there is an indication that instead of merely razing the cemetery, it could be moved, Spencer spoke of the myriad of logistic and halachic problems that this would create as well as the history that would be lost forever.

While for Stuart Spencer, along with his cousins, this was a journey back to uncover their past and memorialise important family history, the story is broader than that. This trip, Spencer’s first to Myanmar, was coordinated by the US-ASEAN under their Corporate Social Responsibility Division. A reception was held, upon their arrival, to celebrate this project.

US-ASEAN is leading a project to restore and protect the Synagogue as a vanishing piece of history. While based on the US sanctions, many are quick to conclude that no money and aid makes its way into Myanmar from the States, on the ground it is a different case as there are exceptions.

The US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology, the US-ASEAN Business Council’s 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, has recently obtained a license from the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar.

It is the first OFAC approved license for the purpose of providing assistance to a humanitarian project that US-ASEAN has received. Newly licenced by OFAC, the Council plans to raise funds for the synagogue’s monthly expenses consisting of utilities, salaries for workers, and various miscellaneous expenses, raise funds in order to complete restoration and necessary maintenance of the synagogue and to raise funds to assist the synagogue in the purchase of a new cemetery.

While Spencer was alarmed by the fragility of the synagogues condition left in the care and management of a single caretaker in ill health, and further alarmed by the reality that the cemetery may be moved to make way for development, perhaps the US-ASEAN project will provide this important piece of history, of memory, the protection it requires to survive.

For more information about donating to the project, please contact Frances Zwenig at 202- 416-6721 or Sarah Chambers at 202-416-6705. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation, the check should me made out to “US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology” with “Synagogue Fund” in the subject line.

(Issue April 2009)

 

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