In its hayday, there were 2,500 Jews in Yangon. Now, though, it's numbers have thinned and there are just 8 Jewish families who call Yangon home. Still, that's more than enough for a functioning Syngague, and thanks to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Trustee, Moshe Samuels, a beautiful shule stands in the heart of Yangon. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in the 1860s, when British rule of Burma meant there were plenty of Jews who needed a spiritual outlet. The site is remarkably central, just a few streets away from the Buddhist holy sight of Sule Pagoda, and in an area that is now a bustling street market.
I was lucky enough to visit the shule for a Shabbat service during Channukah. Most of the locals are not observant, and so the shule only draws a crowd during the high holy-days and during Rosh Hodesh, when there is a special effort to run a service. Unfortunately there were no locals in attendance other than Mr Samuels, the trustee who takes a rather relaxed approach to the laws of Halacha. The small congregation there consisted of a honeymooning couple from Paris, a group of four middle aged Israeli tourists and a mid-20s Israeli on the hippy trail though South East Asia. Inside the cavernous Synagogue, the 8 of us lit the two sets of candles, said the prayers (with some difficultly, given the complete lack of observance of any of us!) and sung some Channukah songs.
Things are amazingly peaceful for the Jews of Yangon. As Mr Samuels explained, though the political situation in Myanmar may be troublesome, there is no hint of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the shule is well maintained by a group of Muslim workers, and many locals in the area of all faiths are able to use the phone and the toilet. The last big issue confronted by the syngagoue was the closure of the Jewish cemetary in Yangon in 1997, due to planning regulations. Yangon itself is a very multicultural city, with Buddhism, Islam and Christianity mixing with a sprinkling of other faiths. Whilst the country itself is ravaged by ethnic and political problems, in Yangon coexistance is the norm.
Mr Samuels himself was born and raised in Yangon, but looks forward one day to heading to Israel. His son Sammy Samuels is currently studying computer science at the Yeshiva University in New York. Most of the Jews in Yangon have a middle eastern background, with many having their roots in Iraq and heading to Burma during its more prosperous times. Of those who have left, most have made Aliyah to Israel, where there are more opportunities and greater freedom.
If you ever find yourself in Yangon on Shabbat and want to spend it somewhere special, hend to the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which is marked on most maps of the city and is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. And get in touch with Moses at Samuels@mptmail.net.mm As with all email in and out of Myanmar, subtlety and discretion is a wise idea.