Myanmar’s dwindling Jewish community pins hope on tourism
YANGON: Few people pass through the simple metal gates of Yangon’s only synagogue, nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim traders on a small street near the city centre.
Those who do stop by and peer into the grand colonial-era blue and white building will be greeted with the sight of a beautifully tended place of worship, but one that has suffered years of underfunding.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the focal point of Myanmar’s rapidly dwindling Jewish community, is struggling to survive the exodus of Jews from the military-run nation and the declining number of foreign visitors.
Tourists used to flock to mainly Buddhist Myanmar, home to stunning landscapes and thousands of temples, but the military government’s suppression of opposition and the detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi led to a drastic fall in the number of visitors.
“We had visitors from the whole world. Jews came from Israel, US, Canada, France, England,” says Moses Samuels, 54, trustee of the synagogue and one of just 25 Jews believed to live in Myanmar.
“Now it is difficult. Before, people came and donated money, but now less people are coming.”
Inside Musmeah Yeshua, faded posters beckon people to ‘Visit Israel,’ an invitation many in the community have taken up, leaving only eight families in a community that once numbered over 2,500.
Many events have forced the Jews overseas, including the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and the takeover by Myanmar’s military in 1962, which was followed by the nationalization of the country’s businesses.
“In 1964 all the businessmen went back, there were about 28 families and slowly they left,” Samuels says as he flicks through black and white photographs depicting Yangon’s once-thriving Jewish community.
Myanmar’s synagogue dates back to 1896, and was built for the increasing numbers of Baghdadi Jews from the Middle East, and Bene Israel and Cochini Jews from India. The Jewish community flourished under British colonial rule, running businesses and trading in cotton and rice. But their comfortable existence was not to last.
The 1942 Japanese invasion forced the majority of Myanmar’s Jews to India. Those who stayed faced continued upheaval, culminating with the 1962 military takeover. The last rabbi left for Israel in 1968.
Ruth Cernea, a US-based historian and author of the upcoming book “Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma,” says the synagogue now survives on small rents and diminishing donations from tourists.
“Such donations are down these days because of American sanctions and other warnings against travel to Burma,” she says, referring to the country by its former name.
“I strongly believe that people should travel to Burma, since the junta is financed not by the relatively small spending of tourists.”
Sammy Samuels, Moses Samuels’s son who has just graduated from Yeshiva University in New York, hopes that a revival of tourism will be the key to saving the dying community.
Father and son have set up a travel company, Myanmar Shalom, which begins operating in November.
“We plan to bring more Jews to visit Myanmar to celebrate High Holidays with the local community and to bring Jews who were born in Myanmar but now live in other countries back to Myanmar,” he says.
“The synagogue, usually quiet, will be filled with joy, songs and services,” he adds.
One possible tourist draw is the old Jewish cemetery on the edge of Yangon. At the moment it lies in disrepair, with stray dogs sleeping on headstones and a handful of children running around overgrown graves.
But Cernea says it is due to be destroyed to make way for an urban development project. The government has chosen a new site, but Cernea says the move is unlikely to happen.
“There are ritual prescriptions for moving graves in addition to the high cost,” she says.
Despite the seemingly gloomy prognosis for Myanmar’s Jews, Cernea sees hope in 25-year-old Samuels, who she calls a “bright, personable, wonderful guy”.
After a trip to Israel in 2000, Samuels returned to Yangon and distributed flyers about the synagogue in hotels. He also established a museum and souvenir shop.
He plans to remain in New York for the time being and study international business, but says he will eventually return home and continue his family’s legacy.
“Definitely one day I will take care of the synagogue like my father,” Samuels says.
But Cernea fears that with the dire economic situation in Myanmar, there is little opportunity for Samuels and other returning Jews to get good jobs.
“The only hope for the future is a change in Burma’s political and economic climate,” she says. “More international businesses would mean more Jews employed and living in Burma, and therefore a resident congregation for Musmeah Yeshua.” For Moses Samuels, Myanmar is his home and he has no plans to join his fellow Myanmar Jews in Israel.
“I was born here, my wife is here, my daughters are here, I like Myanmar,” he says. “Here there is no problem. We have religious freedom. There are Muslims from Pakistan and Indian Muslims. We all stay together.”