Keeping the Jewish spirit alive in Burma

 The Yangon synagogue decked out for Sammy Samuels’ wedding (photo: Israeli embassy)

 Since Burma (Myanmar) became nominally democratic in 2011, tourists and businesspeople are injecting new life into Burma’s Jewish community, founded by Baghdadi Jews in the 19th century. Public Radio International has a report and transcript on the Mesmuah Yeshuah synagogue, where the caretakers are the Samuels family. (With thanks: Andrew)



Walking down Mahabandoola Street, one of the
main thoroughfares of downtown Yangon, right at about 26th Street, if
you look carefully, you may notice a little, blue Star of David painted
above a row of ordinary looking shops. It’s on the side of Burma’s
beautiful, old, Sephardic synagogue.

It’s been almost 50 years since regular services were held at
Congregation Mesmuah Yeshuah, but every morning 63-year-old Moses
Samuel, patriarch of Burma’s remaining Jewish community, opens the
synagogue doors and waits for any visitors, Jewish or not, who might
come by.

Moses got throat cancer two years ago, so his son, Sammy, has become the voice of Burma’s Jews. At 32, he’s also the youngest of Burma’s Jews.

At its peak, the prosperous and prominent Jewish community numbered
about 2,500. Most migrated from Baghdad during British colonial times.
Burma’s then-capital, Rangoon (today known as Yangon) even had a Jewish
mayor in the early 1900s.

But when Japan invaded during World War II, Jews were generally
treated like British spies, and most fled.  Some returned after the war,
and in 1948, when Burma gained independence, Burma became fast friends
with another new country — Israel.

But in 1962, the Burmese military toppled the government and
nationalized businesses. Most of the remaining Jews left, but the
Samuels family stayed. Sammy says they never thought of leaving. They
loved their home country and being there was important, because they
wanted Jewish visitors to Burma “not to be alone.”

In 2002, Sammy got a full scholarship to go to college in the US. He
moved almost permanently to New York, but every summer he’d travel back
to Yangon.

One Friday evening in summer, Moses went to the synagogue alone.
Sammy wasn’t feeling well, but 45 minutes later Sammy got a call from
his dad begging him to come. “He sounded as if he won the lottery,”
Sammy says.

Before he even got there that night, he heard the singing. About 40 American tourists had showed up for Friday night services.

“My father was so happy, he opened all the kosher wines that he had,” Sammy says.

Sammy, who was looking for a way to connect his homeland with his
adopted country, got a brilliant idea. If those 40 tourists would come
for Friday night services, maybe others would come, too. He started a
travel agency called Myanmar Shalom, to — as he puts it — “keep the
Jewish spirit alive in Burma.”

In 2011, Burma became nominally democratic, and tourists began to
pour in, relatively-speaking. And Myanmar Shalom, which does group and
personal tours for Jews and non-Jews, has gone from two employees to
20.

The US-ASEAN Business Council Institute (USABCI) just finished
restoring parts of the synagogue, and Frances Zwenig, head of the
project, says there are always tourists at the synagogue when she visits
now.

And now that Myanmar Shalom can cover costs, the USABCI handed synagogue upkeep back to the Samuels Family.

Myanmar Shalom is not only easing the way for tourists, Sammy also
runs a consulting company for Fortune 100 businesses trying to tap in to
Burma’s untouched markets. Those businesses often bring Jews into
Yangon for work opportunities — much like their ancestors did.

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