The Jews of Singapore

As far as is known, the first Jews arrived in Singapore toward the end of the 18th century

The Chesed El Synagogue 521 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The Chesed El Synagogue 521
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
If you ask any member of the Jewish community of Singapore to tell you how many Jews there are, the answer will fall anywhere between 300 and 2,500. Some believe the figure to be even higher.
The community website gives an approximate figure of 2,000, but no one knows for sure, because there are Jews who live in the country for long periods without being citizens or having permanent residence status.
Still, even in a community of 2,000 – give or take – the pulse of Jewish life is strong. There are two active synagogues, which follow Orthodox traditions, and there is a Reform group that meets once a month for services but does not have a synagogue of its own.
There is also a Jewish day school with some 120-plus pupils. It is only an elementary school, but it is about to move into a new campus, and within less than a decade it will have a high school as well.
In addition, there are a retirement home, a mikve, a kosher food shop that stocks a large variety of frozen meats from Australia and the US, plus other products from Israel, two kosher restaurants – one meat and one dairy – as well as a vegetarian restaurant with a mezuza on the doorpost but no rabbinical supervision, and a Jewish cemetery.
Although the two rabbis resident in Singapore belong to Chabad, contrary to the situation in other parts of Asia, there is no Chabad House.
“We are employed by the Singapore Jewish Welfare Board,” says Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, who came to Singapore in 1994 with his wife, Simcha.
The articulate Abergel, who can converse in French, English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic, was born in France and grew up in Belgium, where his father had been sent as a Chabad emissary. Though they were a proud Sephardi family at home, most of the senior Abergel’s congregants were Ashkenazi, so the younger Abergel learned the importance of flexibility at an early age. At 17, he left Belgium to study at the Rabbinical College in Morristown, New Jersey, and prior to receiving his rabbinical ordination at Tomchei Tmimim, the Chabad central yeshiva in Brooklyn, in 1992, he spent two years engaging in outreach work with the Sephardi communities of Greater Miami.
In Singapore, while he may practice the Sephardi mode of prayer at home, he adopts the Baghdadi style in the synagogue in deference to the traditions of the community he serves.
There was a Hebrew Sunday school but no Jewish day school before he came to Singapore. He and his wife inaugurated Ganenu (Our Garden), a Jewish kindergarten that developed into a school as the pupils grew older and enrollment began to increase.
AS FAR as is known, the first Jews arrived in Singapore toward the end of the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century. The first official record of a Jewish presence in the country was in the 1830 census, which listed nine traders of the Jewish faith who came from Baghdad and Basra in Iraq. More than half a century earlier, many Baghdadi Jews went to India, and some of these or their descendants later found their way to Singapore.
By 1841, there were 22 Jews in Singapore, and because they were devout they sought to build a house of worship. They secured a peppercorn lease for a plot of land and turned a store house into a synagogue whose congregation fluctuated depending on the number of passing Jewish traders. By 1843, the trustees of the community had also acquired a cemetery plot.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 enabled the rapid development of Singapore’s economy and attracted more Jews to the island. In addition to trading merchandise and opium, they became stockbrokers, land owners and property developers. From the 1930s onward, it was widely believed that Jews owned half the rental properties in Singapore. In fact, several buildings that are or were owned by Jews have highly visible Jewish symbols on their facades.
The building that housed the first synagogue, on what became known as Synagogue Street, was demolished after World War II, but there were already two other synagogues in place.
By the 1870s, the Jewish population had grown to some 200 souls, and the storefront synagogue was too small to accommodate them. Also, most Jews no longer lived within easy walking distance of the synagogue, and the trustees decided to build a larger facility.
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Road was officially consecrated in April 1878. It adjacent to the Jacob Ballas Community Center, where Abergel has his office and where the mikve, the kosher shop and the meat restaurant are located.
Congregants eat lunch together on Saturdays.
JACOB BALLAS was an impoverished Baghdad-born Jew who became chairman of the Singapore Stock Exchange. Because he had no children, he willed part of his estate to the community, which has perpetuated his name. The trustees of the proposed Maghain Aboth Synagogue initially encountered difficulty in securing the land, and were aided by the influential Manasseh Meyer, one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in colonial Singapore.
Born in Baghdad in 1843, Meyer came to Singapore via Calcutta in 1861. Both a trader and a substantial land owner, he became enormously wealthy and was the landlord of both residential and commercial properties throughout the island. His own house on Oxley Rise was a splendid example of architecture, large enough to accommodate his seven children comfortably. Strictly observant with regard to Jewish dietary laws, he raised his own poultry and cattle and had a ritual slaughterer who worked only for him.
By 1902, when the Jewish population had grown to 500 and the synagogue was too crowded for comfort, Meyer decided to use a house not far from his home as a temporary place of worship for his family while constructing a new synagogue on land next to his Oxley Rise home.
Located at 2 Oxley Road, the Chesed-El Synagogue, which was dedicated in April 1905, has a narrow staircase leading directly to what was Meyer’s home.
He used to pay a group of men to come and pray every day so he could always be assured of a minyan, morning and evening. His seat, in a prominent place in the men’s section, still bears his name, and no one else has dared sit in it in the 83 years since his death.
Among the recent congregants at Chesed-El is US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman, whose name is also on his seat – but in accordance with his request, without his title.
Meyer hosted all the who’s who of Singapore as well as visiting dignitaries – one of whom was Albert Einstein, who came in November 1922 to solicit funds for the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Meyer was a generous philanthropist, contributing to many causes, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Funds from his estate are still used to help maintain the two synagogues, a Hebrew school and the Jewish Welfare Board, which is responsible for the needs of the poor and aged and the community’s religious requirements.
OVER THE past decade, there has been an Ashkenazi influx as more Jewish business people from Europe, America, Australia and Israel have discovered the Switzerland of Asia, says venture capitalist Yishai Klein, an Australian who lived in Israel for several years and whom the Tel Aviv-headquartered Giza Venture Capital sent to Singapore 12 years ago to set up its Asian operations.
He left Giza a little over a year ago, but he and his American wife, Tammy, remain firmly rooted in Singapore’s Jewish community. Their three children were born there. Klein is a member of the Jewish Welfare Board and on the committee of the Jewish Business Forum, which Harry Elias, one of the southeast Asian country’s best-known trial lawyers, recently founded.
Abergel, meanwhile, says he finds a certain idyll in Singapore, where no one looks askance at him if he walks down the street in his haredi (ultra-Orthodox) garb. There are so many people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds who are wearing traditional attire that no one pays any attention, he says.
Even though he is not running a Chabad House, he says the values of Chabad enable him to do his job better.
Like rabbis all over Asia, be they Chabad or affiliated with other streams of Judaism, he faces the challenge of how to relate to Jews with non-Jewish spouses.
“I do everything possible to encourage Jews to come and endorse their status as Jews. Even if their spouses are not Jewish, the Jews should be exposed to Jewish life,” he says.
Abergel estimates that the community numbers somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000, and believes that it is in a state of transition. With Asia enjoying tremendous economic growth, he says, Jews are coming to Singapore and other parts of Asia so they, too, can enjoy economic growth.
“New families are moving into Singapore all the time. The question is what will be the character of the community in 10 years from now. Here, they come from every conceivable Jewish background, but they are not as fragmented as in other parts of Asia, because there is one central address for Jewish needs in Singapore,” he says.
He accepts any Jew who wants to become part of communal life, asserting that “in a community, it’s important to have inclusiveness in all aspects of Jewish life.”
Abergel is heavily involved in interfaith work.
“It’s probably the only country in the world where when you speak of interfaith, it’s a lot more of a reality, because the government demands that it work,” he says. “As much as there are differences, people sit with one another, and a lot is done to push common initiatives and projects. There’s no state religion in Singapore, so every religion has an equal footing. A lot of important friendships and real relationships are forged despite major gaps.”
For all that, he says he does not compromise his own religious standards.
Asked if he shakes hands with women, he smiles and says he is saved by the Asian custom of holding both hands together in supplication and giving a slight bow – a gesture that is acceptable to everyone and insults no one.