Remnants of Jews in Singapore

At one time, the Jewish population in Singapore numbered about 6,000. Today, it numbers approximately 250.

But this particular Saturday when I arrived at Maghain Aboth Synaogugue (shield of our Fathers) at the start of the Shabbat service, I thought perhaps the numbers of people had been overstated. There was less than a minyan while I sat in the upstairs of the Orthodox shul with only two other women. During the next hour, the synagogue began to fill and by the end of the services, there were about 50 men and 10 women, an acceptably number considering the size of the community.

The small but devoted Jewish Singaporean population is proud of its history in this very pricey city. In Eze Nathan’s book, The History of Jews in Singapore, the author states that the Jews of this area came mostly from Mesopotamia and were Sephardic. But Askenazi Jews were also migrating to Singapore, a city which was to become an orderly multi-racial society.

It was Stamford Raffles who had this vision and ultimately unified Penang, Malacca and Singapore under the title Straits Settlements. The first records of Jews in Singapore dates from 1830- and then there were only nine. By 1833 there were only three. But by the 1840s, the numbers had increased to 22. All were traders and as their families began to arrive, numbers shot up to 43. It was this group which took strict measures to ensure their children would “live and die as Jews.”

At this point, a small piece of land on Synagogue Street in Singapore Town was leased by the government and became a place of worship. With a small but observant population, three Jews from Calcutta established the first Jewish cemetery in 1843. The Old Cemetery then in a swampy area, now considered central Singapore, was leased for 99 years.

The first synagogue was built in the commercial area and looked very much like what S’poreans call a shop house (a store at the bottom and living quarters on the upper floor). However, it was sold after only a few decades. By 1870 there were 172 Jews in the community – most of Sephardic descent – but since few lived in the area of the synaogogue, it was left unattended and deteriorated. A trio of men was given the opportunity to buy land to erect a new synagogue with the proviso that it must be built within three years. Unfortunately, the option was lost and taken over by the government.

A new site was obtained in 1873 on the street then known as Church Street. Construction finally began in 1878. In over 100 years not much has been changed. Before entering Maghain Aboth Synagogue, I looked in at the mikvah, housed in a small building across the courtyard from the synagogue. When I entered Maghain Aboth, the first thing I noticed, was a large dome over the west wall, which is equally spectacular from the outside. The benches downstairs are carved wood while the women’s section has cushioned chairs, each with a bronze nameplate, from donations by the members.

The many high widows brighten the hall. The carved teak bima is in the center of the very expansive hall . At the end of the space are three large teak doors with metal grill topping it. This is for the torahs, which are believed to have come from Baghdad and Calcutta.

I’m invited for lunch. Shabbath noon meals are held outside, under the covered entrance. And on this particular Saturday, the sun was bright, the weather, hot, the hosts entertaining and warm. The kosher meal was typical except for some of the appetizers, which have an interesting flavor, which I decided, must be Singaporean. The conversation was mainly about Israel and about the Jews of Canada, where I live. Their kindness and generosity was much appreciated but I wasn’t surprised since I was pre-warmed of the hospitality. As I get ready to leave, I recalled the psalmist’s quote. “Peace within thy rampart, prosperity within they palace.” Singapore Jews have prospered and survived as Jews in Asia.