20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
Myanmar Jewish Community - Past & Present Print E-mail

Burma or the Union of Myanmar is the largest country in terms of geographical area in mainland Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China on the north, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, and India on the northwest.

Major tourist attraction - The Irrawaddy River System

Independence from the United Kingdom was achieved on 4 January 1948 as the “Union of Burma”. In 1962, the government run by U Nu was removed following a coup. The Burmese military has controlled the government since. On 18 June 1989, the ruling military junta changed the name officially to Myanmar.

The country has had its share of internal strife, the most recent being a movement led by the country’s monks that began on 19 September 2007. The world is carefully watching to see how these latest conflicts end. On 28 September, the government cut internet access, interrupting Jewish Times Asia’s contact with the tiny Jewish community within the country.

Most of the country practices the Theravada Buddhism. Muslims account the next largest number of people with Christianity representing a smaller number and Hinduism and Judaism smaller yet.

The Jewish/Muslim relations in Burma are reportedly quite good. The Jewish community is located within the Muslim neighborhood. The two groups mix socially and intermarry often.

The Jewish community actually teeters on the verge of extinction. Estimates of the number of Jews remaining in Myanmar vary from well under twenty Jews to eight families. There are also a few families present in connection with the Israeli Embassy staff of Myanmar.

The State of Israel and the Union of Myanmar both achieved their Independence in 1948 and Myanmar was also the first country in South East Asia to recognise Israel as an Independent State.  Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in the beginning of the 1950’s.

The first record of a Jew in Myanmar was Solomon Gabirol. In 1755 he was a Commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya and it is believed that he may have been present when King Alaungpaya conquered Dagon.

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The start of the presence of a semi-permanent Jewish community dates back to the early nineteenth century when Baghdadi Jews stopped in Rangoon while en-route to other destinations seeking fortunes from trade. They were encouraged by the British government to settle there. Many of these families are counted amongst the most prominent early founders of other great communities in places throughout the Far East like Hong Kong and Singapore.

The permanent community was established later and comprised of Baghdadi and Bene Moshe Jews, though these groups internally were in conflict with one another. The Baghdadi Jews enjoyed a position on the top of the social strata within  the Jewish community. Rules were enacted to bar participation by the Bene Moshe in various aspects of Jewish communal life. Overall, in 1881, local census results list the number of Jews as 172; 219 in the 1891 census and 508 by 1901.

Estimates of the community in its heyday range from between 1,200 to a high estimate of 2,500. The Jewish population was concentrated in Rangoon though smaller communities grew throughout the country.  

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in 1896 following a land grant by the British government. It is a white and blue tiled structure, and a clear product of the prosperous colonial-era that it was a product of.

Along with this grant came rights to economic benefits from surrounding properties in the 31st Street area. Even today, collection of rent by the Synagogue’s caretaker, from the twenty-some odd small businesses housed on these properties, are a modest source of revenue for the Synagogue.

A second synagogue, Beth El, was reportedly built in 1932, though it is unknown what happened to this second synagogue as it no longer stands and its paper trail is somewhat hidden. Smaller Jewish prayer halls were once found sprinkled throughout the country as well.

Neighbourhood housing Synagogue in downtown Rangoon

The community once had a collection of 126 Sifrei Torahs and a Talmud Torah. They also had established charitable and communal organisations, including a Boy Scout troop; the “Rangoon Committee for the Recognition of Israel”, a Zionist organisation; and a Jewish School. Jews integrated well into life in Burma in the earlier years and Bassein even had a Jewish mayor as did Rangoon.

The community nearly ceased to exist, when during World War II, the Japanese drove out most of the Jewish population which they suspected as being pro-British sympathisers. Some, like Isaac Samuels, were jailed, while others were reportedly killed.

Only 500 community members returned following the war and most of these Jews again fled after the 1962 military-led coup. The former Burmese Jews were then scattered around the world throughout Israel, India, the United States, Australia and England.

Today only traces of this once vibrant community exist and are facing an uncertain future. Moses Samuels, son of Isaac Samuels, is the caretaker of this once great institution. The magnificence of the synagogue is evidence of the wealth of the community that once filled it.

Moses Samuels

Moses Samuels hopes that his family will be able to continue to preserve this important piece of history and hopes that Jewish life here will be renewed. As the father of two daughters and one son, he hopes that his children will remain tied to their heritage and willing to take over his job one day as he had for his father.

His son Sammy, the pride of the small community, is an honours graduate from Yeshiva University in New York City, with a degree in Information Systems and International Business. From abroad he helps his father run their tour company aimed at attracting world Jewry to their corner of the world. The family also relies on revenue from a furniture rental business for their own survival.

Sammy Samuels

The community has not had a rabbi since 1969 and there is no kosher food available. Minyans are extremely rare and exclusively a product of visitors generated by the Israeli Embassy or by Jewish tour groups. The Torah is rarely chanted from, as there are no Hebrew speakers present in the community.

In 2002 and 2003, Howard Elias and Hannelore Hartig, of Hong Kong’s Jewish Community, organised a communal Rosh Hashanah in Rangoon. They gathered together twelve people the first year and thirty-nine in the second year to celebrate the Jewish New Year with this often forgotten, dwindling community. Chabad assisted in finding a rabbi to lead this celebration.

Rabbi Haddad became the first Rabbi in well over thirty-years to lead High Holiday services in Rangoon.

Today, the Jewish Cemetery still stands in its original location on 91st Street. There are between 600 and 700 fairly well-kept Jewish graves in this cemetery, giving a snapshot of the personalities that lived in the Rangoon Jewish community. The oldest grave dates back to 1876. Moses Samuels own father, Isaac who died in 1978, was one of the last Jews to be buried here.

In 1997, the Yangon City Development Committee indicated that the multi-religious graveyards located within the city itself were to be moved to allow for urban planning and development. The plan reportedly was to utilise the Jewish Cemetery’s land to erect a shopping mall. All burials within the city were ordered to stop. 

Jewish Cemetary in Rangoon
Jewish Grave

Moses Samuels made an appeal to world Jewry for the contribution of funds to help save the cemetery and insure that if moved the community would have the resources to do this as required by Jewish law and in a way that will protect the graves.

The local government gave assurances directly to the Israeli Ambassador that the Jewish Cemetery would not be moved. The other religious minority’s graveyards would be moved first, leaving the Jewish cemetery. Its fate still remains uncertain.  

Other marks of the community’s near forgotten vibrancy and prosperity remain throughout the city. Property belonging to one of the more prominent families, the Solomon family, still can be located. Their original home still stands, marked with a Magen David.

This once magnificent private residence is now a primary school. The family’s once profitable ice factory also still stands and is likewise adorned with the Magen David as well.

Other small, local businesses prominently display the Magen David on their signage. They indicated to curious travelers that the symbol merely appealled to them, but it leaves one wondering if this ‘appeal’ is not fueled by a deeper connection buried in their own roots.

Photographs and historical background submitted by Hannelore Hartig

(Issue October 2007) 

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