The Jews of Singapore
A very small country, once ruled in this century by the remote British and endowed with few natural resources, is surrounded by much larger Moslem nations whose standard of living is considerably lower. Security is paramount and a national obsession, so all young men are conscripted into military service.
Right. It’s Singapore, the island-state of some three million inhabitants, bordered on the north by Malaysia, and on the west and south by Indonesia, the most populous nation in the Moslem world.
As Singaporeans are wont to point out, geopolitically their country has much in common with Israel, with whom Singapore enjoys very friendly relations, as well as rather close military ties. And, as a multiracial society, Singapore’s Jews are quite welcome in the heady mix of ethnic groups that comprise this vibrant city-state.
This is not to say, however, that most Singaporeans are aware that Israel is a Jewish state. One reason is that they come into contact with so few Jews: the local community numbers fewer than 200 authentically Singaporean Jews. The rest of the population is predominantly Chinese, Malay and Indian. Another reason is that popular media coverage of Israel (indeed, of the entire Middle East) is as scant in Singapore as in most countries of Asia – which is to say, when the rare news item does appear in the press, it is often superficial, at best.
Singapore’s Jewish community dates back more than 100 years, when the famous Sassoon family – fabulously wealthy merchants of Iraqi origin who had amassed their fortune in the Indian subcontinent of the British empire – opened trading offices in the new entrepot that was quickly becoming a strategic linchpin of the empire’s commercial network in Asia.
As Singapore, blessed with a natural harbor at the tip of the Malay Peninsula and astride the busy Malaccan Straits, rapidly grew and prospered, so did its tight-knit Jewish community, which established a small synagogue on the edge of today’s Chinatown. Although that building was long ago abandoned as a house of worship, its presence is commemorated today by the name Synagogue Street, which adjoins Church Street, and then Mosque Street, Temple Street and Pagoda Street in a bustling yet quaint and picturesque neighborhood.
In 1878, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built on Waterloo Street, and to this day it is the city’s central synagogue, with an adjoining mikve, located in the heart of downtown Singapore. In 1905, it was joined by the slightly grander Chesed El Synagogue, constructed privately by Sir Manasseh Meyer – both synagogues near replicas of each other and their architectural forebears, the colonial synagogues of Calcutta and Bombay.
With a Jewish population in excess of 1,500, the city needed two synagogues; and even though a smattering of Ashkenazim had joined the ranks of the community, both synagogues adhered strictly to the Baghdadi liturgy.
THE TRAUMA of World War II was not confined to the Jews of Europe, and the destruction of the greater part of Singapore’s Jewish community was a direct result of that conflict. The Nazi-allied Japanese conquerors of the island rounded up and imprisoned the Jews in horrifying conditions, and many died of illnesses brought about by the incarceration and deprivations. The war’s end saw a mass exodus of most of the surviving families, primarily to Australia, Canada and the United States.
The trickling departure of Jews, some to Israel, continued steadily through the turmoil of the end of British colonial rule and political confederation with Islamic Malaysia. The coup de grace came during the period of unrest that attended Singapore’s expulsion from the Malaysian Federation and its subsequent independence, declared in 1965, at a time of great uncertainty as to the future prospects of the nation’s dubious future.
Singapore’s Jewish community dwindled to several hundred, and then stabilized as Asia’s economic prowess began to manifest itself.
Singapore’s Jews, isolated as they are in equatorial Asia, are very hospitable to fellow Jews who come to visit or to work as temporary residents for several years. A visitor to the synagogue will not lack for kosher meals.
On Friday night, the guest will likely be invited home by Rabbi Mordechai Avergel or a member of one of two other families, the Walfisches or the Khafis. The invitee will enjoy a different experience in each home.
Yoram and Tziporah Walfisch are the Israeli ambassadors of goodwill to the local religious community. Their Friday night table is always a mix of visitors and Israelis residing in Singapore and the fare is old-fashioned Jewish “comfort food,” served in tasty and plentiful portions. The conversation tends to Hebrew, but those who do not speak it are never excluded; likewise, religious and nonreligious guests are made to feel equally welcome.
Across the hallway from the Walfisches live Rabbi Avergel and his wife Simcha, with their three young children. The Avergels speak English and French, and the food reflects a more continental, elegant cuisine.
REUVEN Khafi has followed in the tradition of his father, Savi, a native of Afghanistan who has lived in Singapore for decades, in hosting Jews seeking a Friday night meal – from young backpacking travelers to exalted government officials like former US assistant secretary of defense Dov Zackheim and Elyakim Rubinstein, currently Israel’s attorney general. Around this egalitarian table, guests will partake of exotic treats from Persia’s culinary culture.
On Saturday, two meals are always served in the synagogue. Lunches are generally sponsored by a family observing a yahrzeit. If the family is one of the wealthier patrons of the synagogue, the Torah portion will be read from the scroll donated by that family. The Ark contains many Torah scrolls in the wooden-encased Sephardic tradition, arranged in a semicircle, with a throne-like chair in the center.
Sabbath lunch consists invariably of a spicy Indian curry prepared by the synagogue caretaker (usually fish, but on rare occasions chicken), with fresh tropical fruits for dessert; a potent combination on an empty stomach. Another meal, cold cuts and salads, is served between the afternoon and evening services.
LIKE MANY Diaspora communities, Singapore’s small but active Jewish community feels a special kinship to Israel. Wealthy community leaders are among the important benefactors to institutions in Israel. Savi Khafi is a member of the Board of Trustees of Bar-Ilan University (where he sent all his children to study). Jacob Ballas, the president of the Jewish Welfare Board – the community’s official name in the registry of the Singapore authorities who exercise tight regulatory control over every manner of ethnic, religious and even social organization – has contributed generously to Israeli hospitals (departments in Poriya and Ichilov bear the Ballas name). A seat on the executive committee of the JWB is always reserved for an Israeli, this year Yoram Walfisch.
Israel’s ambassador to Singapore, David Danieli, is very popular in the community. Danieli, a competent yet unpretentious career diplomat, takes pains to join in community events, and he is a keen student and observer of Singapore’s Jewish community.
“They are also my constituents,” says Danieli simply.
He has adopted the custom of attending the synagogue on Sabbaths preceding each new month in the Hebrew calendar, a gesture that, among others, has endeared him to the community.
“Singapore’s Jews can be divided into three components,” Danieli explains, “each one roughly the same size: Singaporean citizens; Israelis residing and working here; and expatriates from the United States and other mostly Western countries who hold jobs in the financial and similar business sectors.
“The core community is an interesting case study in the preservation of Iraqi Jewish tradition,” he adds.
Indeed, the families that trace their ancestry back to Iraqi origins tend to marry within their circle; and there is little trace of Israeli, Ashkenazi or other Sephardi influence on synagogue ritual – in spite of the fact that the rabbi is a European-born descendant of Moroccan heritage who was ordained in North America, in the Lubavitcher movement.
RABBI Avergel is one of a cadre of Habad rabbis who have spread throughout the Far East, bringing spiritual leadership to Jews living in cities where they are an infinitesimal minority. Young, energetic and extremely non-judgmental, the 31-year-old Avergel is guardedly optimistic about the community’s future.
“It is true that the present numbers do not sustain the vision of a thriving Jewish community,” Avergel concedes candidly. “But if we build the infrastructure, the community can attract new members and grow. That is what happened in Hong Kong: when families know that in addition to a synagogue there is a school, a community center, a store that sells kosher food, etc., they can entertain the notion of relocating here.”
The JWB supports Avergel’s view and is willing to invest in both the physical and spiritual infrastructure of a potentially vibrant Jewish community. They recently hired a young cantor, Mair Rosh, from Israel via Sydney, whose duties beyond synagogue services will include expanding the range of kosher foods imported from Australia, and overseeing the needs of the small old-age home that houses 10 Jewish senior citizens.
The JWB has also empowered Simcha Avergel, the rabbi’s wife and principal of the Talmud Torah school, to look for teachers beyond Singapore’s shores to expand the classes beyond kindergarten.
Currently, some 55 children attend the Sunday school, which is taught by volunteers, while 31 children are enrolled in Ganenu, the nursery school and kindergarten program.
Another important aspect of the revived, modest Jewish education system in Singapore is the easing of tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox elements of the community. Children whose parents belong either to the synagogue or Singapore’s United Hebrew Congregation, affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism (some families belong to both), study side-by-side in a congenial atmosphere that was sadly lacking before the arrival of the Avergels and their outreach philosophy.
“It was a major achievement to tone down the differences between the congregations,” says Avergel.
Linda Semlitz, president of the UHC, concurs. According to Semlitz, although UHC steering-committee members do not officially take part in JWB annual general meetings, “We have had numerous members who act as liaisons in a variety of capacities, which has been very helpful in maintaining warm relationships between our organizations in recent years.”
Singapore’s UHC was founded in 1991 and began holding annual High Holy Day services in 1993. Congregants meet approximately once a month for Shabbat dinners in members’ homes, on a rotating basis.
Rabbi Abergel is keenly aware that there are traditional Jews in Singapore who fall in between Iraqi Orthodox and the Reform orientation of UHC. “For a while, I instituted a monthly Shabbaton, and the service was conducted according to the Ashkenazi tradition,” he recalls.
“But the daunting logistics of organizing frequent shabbatonim, catering meals, etc., require that we find another way of including those who are more comfortable with an Ashkenazi service in the community’s religious life.”
Summing up both his attitude and the key to the future of Singapore’s Jewish community, Avergel remarks: “You don’t have Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox; you have Jews.”