Meet the family behind Burma’s last synagogue


In the center of downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon), just off the city’s main thoroughfare of Mahabandoola Street, stands Burma’s only remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua. Each year, hundreds of tourists visit the colonial-era synagogue, one of the few remnants of this country’s once-thriving Jewish community. In this majority-Buddhist country, the synagogue’s continued existence can be attributed largely to the efforts of one family: the Samuelses. 

Shortly after Burma — also known as Myanmar — gained its independence from Britain in 1948, Moses Samuels took over the care of the synagogue from his father, who had taken over from his father before him. For decades, Moses would open the synagogue doors every morning, eager to greet Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike. 

Moses’ son, Sammy, told the Journal that his grandfather had exacted a promise from his father “that as long as we are here, the synagogue will be open and there will [be a] community. All [the] credit goes to my father.” 

When the Journal contacted Moses in late April, he was suffering from throat cancer and could hardly speak; he responded via email.

“For many years I [have] been receiving visitors from all over the world, and I treat everyone with equal respect and dignity … no matter if they are Jewish or Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Baha’i — [no] matter if they come from America or India, Europe or Asia,” Moses wrote to the Journal on April 29. 

“I am always proud to share the history of the community. This is great for [the] city of Yangon and tourism, to show the diversity of this beautiful city and religious tolerance of its people.” 

A month later, Moses died at the age of 65. Sammy, who has been active in the synagogue’s upkeep and support for many years, said he will continue taking care of both the synagogue and cemetery, as his father had for 35 years. 

Sammy Samuels is the fourth generation of his family to serve as the synagogue’s caretaker. 

“Before my father passed away, I had made [a] promise to keep the Jewish spirit alive in Myanmar, and I will continue to do so,” Sammy said. 

The synagogue, with its soaring ceiling and graceful columns, was rebuilt in 1896 from a smaller wooden structure that had been erected in the mid-1850s. Listed as one of 188 Yangon heritage buildings by the Yangon Development Council, Musmeah Yeshua in its heyday contained 126 silver Torah scrolls. Only two remain today; various Jewish families took the others when they left Burma for other countries over the years. The city’s Jewish cemetery is about six miles from the synagogue and contains more than 600 gravestones, the oldest dating to 1876. The community once boasted a Jewish school, which at its peak in 1910 had 200 students.

Burma’s Jewish community dates to the mid-19th century, when Jewish merchants migrated to Burma and became a conduit between British colonial rulers and the export-import community abroad. Most of these merchants, including Sammy’s great-grandparents, came from Iraq. By 1940, there were approximately 2,500 Jews living in Burma. Many became successful in business and industry, some owning ice factories and bottling plants, others dealing in textiles and timber. The rest were primarily customs officials and traders. 

As Jewish prosperity increased, so did philanthropy, and Jews donated large sums to local institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals. 

But Jewish life in Burma changed drastically during World War II. In the colonial era, the Jewish community had formed close ties with the British. The Japanese occupied Burma in 1941 and, believing Jews were spying for the British, forced them — and most of the British colonial population — to flee to other countries. 

Only about 300 Jews remained in Burma under Japanese occupation. Another 200 returned after the war, but with their homes and wealth gone, most were unable to resume or rebuild their prewar lives. Over time, many of these families also left Burma. By the time Burmese dictator Ne Win’s regime nationalized business in 1962, there were only 150 Jews remaining in the country. With nationalization, more families lost their businesses and factories and also decided to leave. Today, approximately 20 Jews live in Burma, including Sammy’s family. 

For more than five decades, the country remained isolated from much of the outside world, largely because of the economic sanctions Western governments imposed on Burma for its poor record on human rights. But in 2011, when the quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein opened up the country, business opportunities and foreign investments began mushrooming and tourism increased dramatically. According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, about 800,000 tourists visited in 2010-2011; this number increased to 1.5 million in 2012, 2 million in 2013 and 3 million in 2014.  

The Samuels family’s role in Jewish life in Burma has kept pace with the country’s changing status.

In 2002, Sammy left Burma to study at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York. While he was there, he promoted a Jewish-Burmese connection by telling everyone he met about the small Jewish community in Burma. He also assisted many Americans in planning and arranging visits to Myanmar. 

“I [spoke] about Burma at Jewish Communal events, at the Yeshiva University, some synagogues, Jewish Federations,” Sammy said. “That’s why my friends called me the ‘Ambassador of Jews to Burma.’ ” 

When he graduated from YU in 2006, Sammy wasn’t sure what to do next. “I had only $870 extra money. … In my last semester, I got the idea to open a travel agency.” With the goal of increasing tourism and awareness of Jewish heritage in his country, Sammy named his company Myanmar Shalom. He hired one staff person who, along with one of his sisters, helped to run his company in Yangon. His father also helped. 

“Now it’s been almost eight years since I started the agency. And I now have a staff of over 25 at a 2,500-square-foot office in Yangon and branch offices in other cities.” Besides the travel agency, Sammy also created MS Global Consulting Company, and owns and runs two guesthouses in Yangon — the York Residence Bed & Breakfast and the Lotus Inn. 

“If [my] family had left Burma like others, I think the synagogue [would] be closed, and there [would] not be Jewish spirit alive in the country,” Sammy said. He added, proudly, that the synagogue ranks No. 4 out of more than 96 attractions in Yangon and in the top 10 landmarks in Burma by TripAdvisor.

“This is pretty amazing,” Sammy said. “Who [would] think the synagogue with a handful of Jews [would] rank so high in a country with thousands of beautiful pagodas and temples?”

Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine and was the Jewish Journal’s Alfred Friendly Fellow earlier this year.

Are Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims the world’s ‘least wanted’ people?


Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim activist who lives in Myanmar, says his people face a simple calculus when deciding whether to remain in their western Myanmar homes or escape via the Andaman Sea on overcrowded, hopelessly equipped fishing boats:

“Do — or die.”

Rohingya Muslims number around 1 million in a majority-Buddhist country of more than 53 million. Tahay is the leader of Myanmar’s Union Nationals Development Party — an all-Muslim party prohibited from running candidates in elections. Speaking on May 30 by telephone from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Tahay offered up a grim checklist of what life is like for the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (pronounced ro-heej-ah):

No economic rights. No citizenship. Overt state persecution. Violence by Buddhist extremists that’s sanctioned and sometimes assisted by the government. Horrifying levels of poverty, starvation, lack of medical care and more. 

“They know they might sink and die” in the sea, Tahay said. “They know the danger. But circumstances forced them to leave.”

The plight of the Rohingyas — a small Muslim sect that lives primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in neighboring Bangladesh — has suddenly become international news in recent weeks after The New York Times, in particular, ” target=”_blank”>denied entry into Cuba and Florida and forced to return to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took in all the St. Louis’ passengers, 532 of them came under German occupation during the war, and 254 were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, Hudson said, Western European countries are unwilling to allow the Rohingya crisis to impact the growth in business that European businesses have seen thanks to greater access to Myanmar’s economy after the end of the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2013. 

Hudson traveled to Myanmar in March and there, he said, he saw Rolex stores, new casinos and hotels, and Mercedes and Porsche dealerships — direct results of the end of the EU sanctions. “All the trappings of new money are just flooding in, and that’s really difficult to turn off,” Hudson said.

And although the Obama administration continues to raise the issue of the Rohingyas' persecution in meetings with Burmese officials, a senior State Department official told the Journal that the Rohingya issue is just one of several items on Washington’s agenda as it watches Myanmar’s slow transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 

Sowing hatred’s seeds

The story of the animosity toward Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly toward the Rohingyas, from the central government and the nation’s Buddhists, particularly by the Rakhine Buddhists, goes back centuries and, in modern history, has certain notable flash points. 

But it’s a history that started in relative harmony.

The Rohingyas were first recognized in Myanmar by the Buddhist government of U Nu, the country’s first leader after Burma gained independence in 1948. Some Rohingyas even served in Nu’s administration and, to win the support of potential Rohingya voters, some government officials granted instant citizenship to Rohingyas who entered the country from Bangladesh.

The past three decades, however, have seen a quick dissolution of Buddhist-Muslim relations, which had already been disintegrating for decades because of Buddhist fears of Muslim domination. Myanmar’s central government has used those fears to strengthen its own power, and a handful of attacks by violent Muslim and Rohingya separatists have reinforced the notion that Rohingyas are not to be trusted.

Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped most Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship and left them with few, if any, legal rights under either Burmese or international law. It also gave credence to xenophobic rhetoric from the government and Buddhist monks, including claims that the Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese at all, but economic migrants who crossed illegally into Myanmar from Bangladesh with the intent of creating a separatist radical Muslim state. It was an overblown claim, but nevertheless contained some kernels of truth.

Pre-genocide?

Gregory Stanton is a professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia and the founder and president of the group Genocide Watch.  In 1996, he created what has become the defining list of the eight stages of genocide (now expanded to 10): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.

Using these standards, the racist elements within Rakhine Buddhist society and the flame-fanners within the Burmese government have pushed the Rohingyas into the eighth stage (persecution) and on the doorstep of extermination, Hudson said.

“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists, and they are the enemy, and we have to get the enemy before they get us,” Hudson said. “It’s a common narrative in pre-genocidal societies and it’s a common narrative for regimes that are facing an existential threat on their hold on power.” 

That potential threat to the government’s rule isn’t existential, but political, and it stems in part from its recent introduction of greater political and social freedoms — pushed hard by internal democratic parties and by Western governments — and the upcoming democratic elections in the fall. 

In March, Hudson traveled for 10 days to Myanmar and Thailand, along with staff from the USHMM’s Simon-Skjodt Center, on a fact-finding mission — an attempt to witness firsthand the human rights crisis that they’d previously only heard about through anecdotes and news reports.

They visited Rakhine state, spent four days in Rohingya internment camps and ghettoized villages, and traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The group chronicled its trip in a disturbing report available online, ” target=”_blank”>description of Aung Mingalar read like that of a sort of post-apocalyptic village — buildings falling apart; shops closed; and doors, windows and signs either crookedly hanging by their hinges or missing entirely.

Hudson described “row upon row of barracks” in Aung Mingalar, which reminded him of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. “The camps are so large and spread out along this road that runs out into the jungle,” Hudson said, “it’s just eerily reminiscent of a tropical sort of Auschwitz in some ways.”

Food and medicine in Aung Mingalar are scarce, and without sufficient electricity or farmland or basic government services, earning money to live on is all but impossible. To survive, Rohingya residents depend on the generosity of aid groups and the occasional shopping trip to markets outside the ghetto — trips that can require cash to bribe the government guards at Aung Mingalar’s entrance and to pay for a security escort through the potentially hostile surrounding Rakhine Buddhist area of Sittwe.

The destitution and poverty that engulfs Aung Mingalar and its approximately 4,000 Muslims are the norm, not the exception, for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, even in towns that are not as obviously ghettoized and sealed as Aung Mingalar.

Nora Murphy, a physician in Chicago who has traveled several times to Rakhine state on aid missions, described life in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim town 60 miles northwest of Sittwe, as well as other Rohingya towns in Rakhine state:

“The markets were devoid of vegetables and fruit. The poverty was so blatant,” Murphy said via telephone from Chicago. Given the region’s tropical climate, she said the Rohingyas ought to be in a position to have strong agricultural production and the resulting nutritional and health benefits that would follow. 

“During the hot season, kids were always running around having colds, for an area where their nutrition should be good,” Murphy said. She spoke on the condition that the dates of her trips and her sponsoring aid group would not be published, out of fear that the Burmese government would restrict their future ability to deliver aid, as it has done in the past to humanitarian organizations.

Like Aung Mingalar, most Rohingya villages cannot economically sustain themselves. The government’s restrictions on the Rohingyas' freedom to travel outside their towns, and its denial of basic services, along with the surrounding Buddhist population’s hostility, force the handful of Rohingyas who have been permitted limited travel to navigate the government’s complex and arbitrary checkpoint system.

“Even if you paid money, you waited, and when you got the permission to go out, there were checkpoints, and only the Rohingyas were searched,” Murphy said. 

The lack of basic medication and health care for many Rohingyas is so severe, Murphy said, that once she even had to give emergency medical advice via Facebook chat from Chicago to a Rohingya Muslim who had managed to find an Internet connection and needed immediate advice on how to stem extreme bleeding in a pregnant Rohingya woman who had just had a miscarriage.

“People who have their rights respected and enjoy basic freedoms don’t usually feel desperate enough to flee in such dangerous circumstances,” said David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma. “All of the root causes of this problem start in Burma and Bangladesh, and that’s where long-term solutions should be found,” Mathieson said.

More than 25,000 people, most of them Rohingyas, have taken to the Andaman Sea since January, and thousands are thought to still be stranded aboard fishing boats, many abandoned by smugglers who charged hundreds of dollars — a fortune for the Rohingyas — for passage. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon told the Journal on May 29 that since May 24, U.S. Navy aircraft have conducted “regular maritime surveillance missions over the Andaman Sea, for the purpose of searching for vessels carrying Rohingya refugees.” That intelligence, the official said, is then shared with regional governments. She said the Pentagon has no official estimate for how many boats or people remain stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Meanwhile, even as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand recently agreed to offer temporary shelter to those Rohingya trafficking victims who make it ashore, decrepit refugee camps and graves filled with Rohingya refugees have been found in Thailand and Malaysia. A 2014 Reuters report revealed that some Thai officials had been complicit with smugglers in detaining and extorting Rohingya refugees, demanding more money from their families back home if they wished to survive.


“Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families.” — George Soros

In a prerecorded address broadcast at the Oslo Conference on Rohingyas in late May, billionaire investor, philanthropist and political activist George Soros said that when he visited Myanmar in January for the fourth time in as many years, he went to Aung Mingalar and recognized a ghetto similar to the one he lived in as a child in Budapest in 1944.

“In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood,” Soros said. “Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.”

Echoes of 1939 — on land and at sea

Ruth Mandel is the longtime director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She’s also a member of the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience, and, as an 8-month-old in May 1939, was likely the youngest passenger aboard the MS St. Louis trans-Atlantic ocean liner, which carried 937 passengers, nearly all Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Mandel was traveling with her mother and father, and the family ended up surviving the war in Great Britain.

The ship and its Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba on June 2 and soon thereafter from a port in Florida. On June 6, out of options, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, took the St. Louis back to Europe. About half of the passengers fell under Nazi occupation during the war, and about half of those were murdered by the Nazis.

Does anyone care?

In an email exchange, analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, made an obvious, yet ultimately unhopeful point, when asked which country — Malaysia, Thailand or the U.S. — should be leading the way in helping the Rohingyas.

His one-word response: “Myanmar.”

The diplomatic tragedy for the Rohingyas is they have never had a critical mass of sympathetic supporters within Burmese society — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, despite a plea the dalai lama made in an interview with The Australian, in which he said Suu Kyi should do more on the Rohingyas' behalf. 

And even as the Burmese government’s gradual movement toward democracy, which began in 2011, has prompted the United States to ease some of its economic sanctions and the European Union to restore full economic trade with Myanmar, Hudson believes the EU is squandering its opportunity to use its leverage to help the Rohingyas. 

“We met with European embassies and, frankly, they are so interested in the bonanza of investment in Myanmar right now that they aren’t doing anything to slow down the access of their companies to get into the Burmese market,” Hudson said. 

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh are focused on the immediate boat refugee crisis, but not on its cause. “They are not asking Myanmar to deal with the disease. They are simply trying to manage the refugee crisis,” Hudson said.

In 2011, Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to send a secretary of state to Myanmar, when Hillary Clinton traveled there. The next year, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, a sign of Washington’s pleasure at the Burmese government’s political reforms, which to date include greater media and economic freedoms, anti-corruption laws and elections. 

Hudson commended the Obama administration for continuing to discuss the Rohingya issue in private discussions with Burmese officials and in public speeches, but the USHMM’s report on its visit to Myanmar called on the U.S., EU and United Nations to use their economic leverage to make future agreements with the Burmese government dependent on its meeting humanitarian and civil rights benchmarks vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. “They’ve gotten a taste for it [foreign economic investment],” Hudson said. “They want more.” 

But beyond economics, for Mandel, who traveled on the St. Louis and went on to serve on the USHMM’s conscience committee, the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar is just the most recent example in a long history of powerless groups that can’t find help from those in power: “The human race doesn’t have a very positive history of arms wide open, reaching out to people who are not in their clan.”


Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine who is currently an Alfred Friendly Fellow at the Jewish Journal.  Jared Sichel is a staff writer for the Journal.

Surviving a childhood in refugee camps, and thriving


It was late at night when my family and I climbed into a boat to cross the Salween River into Thailand. We were trying to escape the civil war in our remote village in the Karen State in eastern Burma. Although I don’t remember the exact date, I know it was on a December night in 1990 that my family sought shelter in a refugee camp across the border.

I was 4 years old, and I can’t remember anything of the trip itself. But my parents often recalled the old days, reminding my brother, three sisters and me never to forget our roots. We are one of many ethnic minorities in Burma; ours is the ethnic Karen, or Kayin, which makes up approximately 7 percent of the population of 60 million in Burma, also known as Myanmar. It is estimated that 7 million Karen people still live in various parts of the country, including the Karen State.  

After Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, the Burmese government refused to grant independent states or equal rights to ethnic minorities, including the Karen. So, in 1949, ethnic Karen rebels began waging war against the Burmese government. During the decades-long civil war that followed, tens of thousands of Karen civilians were forced off their land and fled for their lives. 

In 1990, the Burmese army’s air strikes against the Karen rebels landed in my village. We had to hide in bunkers in the jungle. As the fighting continued, my family decided to leave our village and cross into Thailand. There are nine Burmese refugee camps on the Thai border, and since the 1990s, some 140,000 Karen have taken refuge in these camps. My family was among them.

 When I was 6 years old, I started going to school in a refugee camp. It was run by community leaders from within the camp. Students used slate to write on because paper was too costly; teachers used chalk on blackboards made of wood. The subjects we were taught included the English and Karen alphabets, mathematics and drawing. 

All of the buildings in the camp — shelter, schools, clinics, churches, monasteries and food stores — were made of bamboo, wood and leaves. They were more like huts. We walked to school and mostly traveled on foot in the camp. There was no electricity, Internet or phone lines.

Life in the camp was extremely difficult for our family. I had to use candlelight or light from locally handmade lamps fueled by diesel oil for reading and doing my homework. At times I had to finish my assignments before sunset because my family couldn’t afford candles or lamps. We sometimes used iodized salt to brush our teeth and wash our mouths, because we couldn’t afford toothpaste. We often took baths and showers without soap.

Like so many of the refugees, my parents had been farmers before they had to flee, and they had no income in the camps. They were solely dependent on humanitarian support for all the basics, including food, medicine, health care, materials for daily use and constructing shelter. These were all provided by global charity organizations and international governments, and facilitated by the humanitarian aid agency The Border Consortium.

Foods such as rice, beans, cooking oil, salt, fish paste, canned fish, chili and other supplies were distributed monthly to households in the camp for free. Bamboo, wood and leaves were delivered annually to households to construct and repair their shelters.  

Living in the refugee camps was like being a bird in a cage. We were officially barred by Thai authorities from traveling outside the camp to study or look for work; we were allowed to leave only for medical emergencies. Refugees were subject to arrest and extortion by Thai security guards and police if they were caught outside the camp. 

I grew up and spent almost 20 years in several refugee camps, completing the informal education that was available within the camps. But, like all students in the camps, I could not enroll in a university or any Thai or Burmese institution of higher education because they don’t accept the camp schools’ certificate of completion.

After finishing 10th grade, students can go to a community college inside the refugee camp. These are run by community leaders with the help of some foreign volunteers. Even though many of my classmates attended these schools, most of them still had to work in the camps (despite their education, they are not permitted to leave) in low-paying community projects run by nongovernmental organizations. At these projects, such as schools and clinics, local workers are paid lower wages than international staff at the same organizations. 

Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t go to a community college, because I didn’t see any hope for my future on that path. Instead, I tried to make friends with supportive elders, teachers and community leaders, hoping they could help me reach my goal of becoming an educated person and obtaining a well-paid job. 

I also avoided having a girlfriend when I was a teenager. Rules about dating were very strict, and sexual relations before marriage were forbidden by the religion and culture. Young couples who were suspected of having a sexual relationship were forced to get married by community leaders and their parents, even if it was against their will. In the refugee camps, once you got married, there was no hope for further education. Many of my friends under 18 ended up in early marriages due to joblessness and limited access to further education.

The mentors I found encouraged me to study English during the summer holidays. They also guided me to read books in addition to those in my school curriculum, so I read other nonfiction and fiction books for general knowledge. My parents also encouraged me to broaden my reading. 

After I finished 10th grade, I took the risk of traveling outside the camp for further educational opportunities. Being stateless and with no legal status, I risked being arrested or extorted by Thai police just by leaving the camp. Nevertheless, with the help of a few close teachers and friends, I applied for journalism training and other on-the-job study programs.

In 2004, I was selected to study journalism in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, in a course organized by Burmese media organization The Irrawaddy. Although I wasn’t able to get a job after the training, I applied and was accepted to another journalism program, in the same city, in 2005. After that one-year program, I had a six-month internship at and then became a staff reporter with the Network Media Group, a Burmese media organization also in Chiang Mai. In 2007, I was selected for an internship at The Irrawaddy, after which I was promoted to permanent staff reporter.  

The Irrawaddy is a leading independent Burmese media organization founded by exiled Burmese journalists in Thailand. It reaches millions of readers worldwide in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, China, and Southeast Asian and East Asian nations. More than 180,000 unique visitors from 200 countries access the website every month.

At The Irrawaddy, I was able to build my career, writing for domestic and international audiences. I won several journalism fellowships and internships and participated in workshops and seminars, many of which brought me to Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries.

In May 2010, I traveled to the southern Philippines to observe elections in Zamboanga City and Sulu, an autonomous Muslim region marred by religious tensions. In July of the same year, I was awarded a fellowship that took me to Jakarta to report on the democratic transition in Indonesia. In December 2010, I was selected to attend a “Human and Civil Rights” workshop in Germany organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German foundation for liberal politics.

In February and March 2014, I was awarded a journalism fellowship by the Honolulu-based East-West Center, an institution founded by the U.S. Congress, which allowed me to travel to Honolulu for a workshop, and to Indonesia and Burma for field studies, where I met government officials and respective stakeholders. In August of the same year, I was invited by the Swedish Institute, a Swedish government agency, for a media visit in Stockholm, where I learned about democracy, integration programs and multiethnic cultures.

I am currently in the U.S. on a six-month fellowship awarded by the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, a nonprofit foundation that supports journalists from developing countries through training and placement in U.S. newsrooms. Along with this year’s other fellows, I studied at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, in Columbia. I am currently working at my fellowship placement with the Jewish Journal.

At the Journal, I see that my refugee experience is, sadly, not unique. The year 1948, when Burma achieved independence from Britain, was the year Israel won independence from Britain as well. That year, the Palestinian refugee crisis began. More recently, the Middle East has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees created by the civil war in Syria. Thousands more refugees are risking death to flee through Libya, across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.  I hope what small insights I can offer from having been a refugee myself can help others facing similar challenges.

I have journeyed a long way since crossing the Salween into Thailand 25 years ago. If I hadn’t pushed myself to take risks, I would still be locked up in the refugee camp like my classmates and friends. When my family and I sought refuge on the Thai border, we thought the conflict would be short-lived and that we would return home shortly. However, this was a distant dream — the war has lasted for decades, and many of the refugees have spent their entire lives in the camps. As for my family, my parents and one sister are still in a camp, while two of my siblings reside in the United States. 

However, beginning in 2005, many refugees began entering countries other than Burma or Thailand — including the U.S. — through a resettlement program managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They left to start a new life, realizing there was no hope of returning to Burma, and that their future — and that of the following generations — in the camps is bleak. In Thailand, there is no hope for refugees to ever obtain citizenship, whereas in some of these other countries they have at least a chance of getting work and, eventually, citizenship. 

From 2005 to 2014, more than 80,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, resettled in various countries; about 70,000 of them are in the U.S. Others have settled in Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. 

Yet there are still approximately 120,000 refugees in camps in Thailand, all of whom continue to face uncertainty. Many countries have decreased or stopped recruiting refugees, believing that the ongoing peace process in Burma offers hope for the refugees’ return. Also, the Thai government has been accelerating repatriation since 2012, when the Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels signed a cease-fire agreement. 

But none of these parties can guarantee lasting peace or the safety and security of the refugees. Instead, the Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels continue to strengthen their military capabilities and entrench their forces while talking peace. Very few refugees have revisited their villages to see whether it is safe for them to return, and none have returned to Burma permanently. 

The Burmese government and ethnic Karen rebels have failed to maintain a sustainable peace several times in the past, resulting in the breakdown of cease-fires that each time have forced thousands of refugees to be displaced. These refugees, like those who fled before them, now find themselves at a crossroads, as they can neither return home in safety nor resettle in many of the countries that had, for a brief time, been open to them.


Saw Yan Naing, 30, is an ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar who is currently on a prestigious fellowship with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, interning at the Jewish Journal. You can reach him at naing@presspartners.org.

Now is the time for Obama to visit Israel


President Obama leaves Saturday for a three-day trip to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.  On the way home he should stop in another Asian country, Israel.  It's a trip he should have made early in his first term and is long overdue.

The timing is good.  He just won a decisive election victory that the Israeli prime minister tried very hard to prevent, and this would be a good time to have a heart-to-heart with him and the Israeli people about his view of where the bilateral relationship is headed over the next four years.

As soon as Benjamin Netanyahu recovered from the shock that his preferred candidate lost the election, the prime minister congratulated Barack Obama and told U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro,  “I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security.”

Does he really believe that after four years of sniping and trying to undermine this president and working for his defeat that Obama believes him or trusts him now?  Especially since on the day before the American election Netanyahu announced he didn't need American permission to strike Iran (as if anyone said he did), and that he was going ahead with the construction of 1,200 new homes in settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that he knew would upset Washington and only strengthen the Palestinian case at the United Nations where he is depending on Obama to try to block the PA's bid for membership later this month.

Netanyahu was one of the big losers in this election, and elections have consequences.

He has a long history of not being able to get along with Democratic presidents and collaborating with the Republican opposition to undermine them. It will take more than the kind of platitudes he delivered to Amb. Shapiro last week if Netanyahu is serious about repairing the damage.

The Republicans ran a very vigorous anti-Obama campaign in the Jewish community, largely fueled by Netanyahu's friend and financial backer Sheldon Adelson, accusing the president of not affording the prime minister the deference and policy support they felt he deserved.

They got it backwards. The relationship is a two-way street, but one side of the street has wider lanes than the other.  So much of Israel's security, financial, diplomatic and political well being depend on its relationship with the United States, and when there is a prime minister in Jerusalem with a reputation for undermining that relationship, meddling in the American election and losing the trust and respect of the American president, the question has to be asked:  is he a fit steward for this important alliance?

It was no secret that Netanyahu preferred Mitt Romney, and the PM did nothing to stop Republicans from using his image and speeches in their anti-Obama ads.

One Likud leader in Knesset, Danny Danon, a longtime bitter critic of Obama who came to the United States this year to encourage the president's opponents, greeted his reelection by admonishing Obama to cease trying to “endanger” Israel and “return” to the policy of “zero daylight” between the two allies.

He clearly does not understand that it is not the duty of the American president to march in lock step with the Israeli government regardless of its policies.  America is more than Israel's best (and often only) friend; it is its arsenal, its financial backer, its political and diplomatic bulwark.  There are good reasons the Israeli people expect their leaders to protect the American relationship and not undermine it.

The bad news for Netanyahu in this election is not just that he and his billionaire buddy Adelson backed the wrong horse.  There was a small uptick in Jewish votes for Republicans to a level not seen since the 1980s, but it had no impact on the outcome of the election. It showed once again, to the consternation of the GOP, Jews are not one issue voters.  With Jews giving Obama some 70 percent of their votes and telling pollsters Israel is not a top priority or a determinative issue in casting their ballots, the President has some new room for maneuver in the Middle East — if he plays it smart.

That starts with an early trip to Israel to reassure voters in person of his continuing “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” his determination to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and his readiness to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace when they are ready. It should be an opportunity for him also to share his vision of the Middle East and America's role in it over the next four years.  He shouldn't tell Israelis how to vote or that he feels their prime minister has mismanaged the American portfolio for the past four years.  That is a decision for the Israelis themselves.

On January 22, the day after Obama is to be sworn in for his second term, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new government, hopefully it will be one that understands the value of the American relationship, one that can work with the American administration and not against it, regain the confidence and trust of the President of the United States and work to repair the damage done to Israel's international stature over the past four years.

One of the reasons aides said Obama did not visit Israel during the past four years is that he didn't want to bolster Netanyahu, who he felt was trying to undercut administration policies. That was a mistake.  The reality was that Obama's failure to visit actually bolstered and emboldened Netanyahu, Adelson and the Republicans to go after him.

There is no excuse for further delay. A presidential trip to Israel is long overdue, and the sooner he goes the better.

In Burmese Chanukah celebration, signs of Myanmar’s openness to the West


In almost any other community from Moscow to Washington, it would have been just another public Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony providing an opportunity for the local government and Jewish community to showcase their strong ties.

But in Myanmar, where the government has been run by a military junta and the Jewish community numbers just a handful of families, the occasion last week of a public Chanukah lighting ceremony involving government officials was remarkable.

On Dec. 27, the last night of Chanukah, Myanmar’s eight Jewish families were joined by government officials, diplomats and former ambassadors at a Chanukah celebration in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. In all, about 100 people were on hand for the party at the Park Royal Hotel.

Earlier, Jewish community leader Moses Samuels visited the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate who until a year ago had been under house arrest for most of the last two decades. At the meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly said that she once had visited the country’s century-old synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua (Hebrew for Instills Hope), which is still open.

Suu Kyi had been invited to the Chanukah event but said she could not attend because it conflicted with a prayer ceremony she was holding at her home for her late mother.

The visits to Suu Kyi and the Yangon Chanukah party were signs of the changes taking place in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the last year has seen significant economic and political reforms and new openness to the West. Last month, in an affirmation of those changes, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country, the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century.

“The United States is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you keep moving in the right direction,” Clinton told Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, during her visit.

Samuels, whose Burmese name is Than Lwin, has been instrumental in keeping alive the Jewish presence in Yangon.  Every morning he opens the well-kept blue-and-white synagogue, even though most of the time there is no official prayer service—unless there is a yahrzeit anniversary for the deceased or a visiting Jewish tourist group. Samuels and his son Sammy, who lives in New York, run a tour company in the country called Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours.

Until this year the community’s Chanukah ceremonies were quiet affairs in the synagogue, according to Samuels. But with Myanmar opening up to the West, the community decided to make the event bigger this year, holding the rite at a hotel and including a photo exhibit of Israel-Burmese relations.

Among the Burmese officials present were Daw Yin Yin Myint, the director general of the Foreign Ministry; U Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of the armed forces who is the vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy party; Maung Maung Swe, chair of the Myanmar Travel Association; and U Hein Latt, vice chairman of the newspaper Popular Journal.

Diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, India, Singapore, Britain, Italy and Israel came, and the celebration involved not just Jews but also Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’i.

Several thousand Jews once lived in Burma. The first known Jew to live in the country was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya, who ruled from 1752 to 1760.

Growing numbers of Jewish merchants came to Burma over the years, and in the mid-19th century a group of Baghdadi Jews led by David Sassoon settled in Burma, India and other lands in the Far East. Burma’s synagogue was built in 1854 and rebuilt in 1896. The community supports a cemetery; its oldest grave is dated 1876.

After the Japanese invasion in 1941, many Burmese Jews fled to India.

Both Burma and Israel achieved independence in 1948, and the two countries enjoyed cordial relations for the first two decades of their existence. That included a warm friendship between prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and U Nu, who was the first head of state to visit Israel. A daughter of U Nu, Than Than Nu, attended last week’s Chanukah party.

When a military junta took over Burma in 1962, installing a repressive regime and nationalizing businesses, most Jews left.

In a recent interview, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yaron Mayer, told JTA that relations between the two countries had “remained good over the years.” He noted that in 2011 a Myanmar delegation attended an energy conference in Israel.

Some of the few Jews left in Myanmar said they hope that with time and a continual opening of Myanmar’s political system, the Jewish community here will grow.

“No matter what religion we practice or what beliefs we value,” Sammy Samuels said at the Chanukah party, “when we light the candles tonight it reminds all of us to rededicate ourselves to improving the lives of those around us, to spread the light of freedom and to believe that miracles are possible even in times of darkness.”

Ben G. Frank is the author of the newly published “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” from Globe Pequot Press.

Organize now against oppression in Burma


We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it’s too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.

The monks’ nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death — not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma — a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people — manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.

But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.

That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).

In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.

So why am I writing this now, when the world’s attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are — and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention — there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.

Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.

What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade — Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel — to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.

Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.

I volunteered to help. In the last month, we’ve managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.

Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (www.fanista.com), as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at www.burmaitcantwait.org.

We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others — be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world — enjoy those same freedoms.

We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a “people of hope.” That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

Dan Adler is the Founder and CEO of “>Human Rights Action Center and the

Honoring Hatzolah, Anjelica Huston, Sheba


All Hail Hatzolah

Ambulances, LAPD squad cars and fire trucks filled the parking spaces outside Beth Jacob Congregation the evening of March 16 — but there was no emergency going on inside.

Rather, it was an “Evening of Appreciation” for the Los Angeles Fire Department, presented by the Hatzolah Los Angeles emergency rescue team.

“We are here to salute you for a job well done,” said Hatzolah chairman Zvika Brenner to the 200 guests who packed the congregation’s ballroom.

Hatzolah, Hebrew for rescue, has dozens of round-the-clock trained volunteer emergency medical technicians and dispatchers who act as a bridge in the critical first minutes of an emergency before paramedics arrive. The group works in the Pico-Roberston, Fairfax, North Hollywood and Hancock Park neighborhoods. No other community in Los Angeles has its equivalent, LAFD Chief Douglas Barry, who was honored at the event, told The Circuit.

“What we have here tonight is a collection of the most selfless individuals in the city of L.A.,” Rabbi Avrohom Teichman said.

He was speaking both of the Haztolah volunteers and the many police and fire personnel in attendance.

The event was sponsored by Beth Jacob caterer Edmond Guenoun and honored Chief Timothy J. Scranton of the Beverly Hills Fire Department, Deputy Chief Terry Hara of the LAPD and Fire Commissioner Andrew Friedman. Also in attendance to honor what master of ceremonies Alan Stern termed “the life-saving and holy work of Hatzolah” were L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, EMS Commissioner Rabbi Chaim Kolodny, Hatzolah coordinator Michoel Bloom, LAPD Counterterrorism head Michael Downing and LAPD Det. Yehuda Packer.

The evening turned even more emotional when Hatzolah unveiled a new emergency supply truck dedicated in honor of Devorah and Aliza Levenberg, a young Hancock Park-area mother and daughter killed 10 days earlier in a traffic accident in Israel. Dvora’s mother, Rivi Adelman, a volunteer Hatzolah dispatcher, clad in black mourning clothes, expressed her appreciation to the assembly.

Burmese Rights Take Center Stage


Damien Rice. Photos by Mary Bell

Hollywood elite joined L.A. Buddhist monks and Burmese-born citizens in the penthouse Sunset Room of West Hollywood’s Hyatt Hotel on March 1.

The Human Rights Action Center and U.S. Campaign for Burma raised $30,000 to increase awareness and advocate on behalf of human rights in Burma. The organization is also boycotting the Beijing Olympics and the Chinese government for their involvement with the Burmese military junta, which has held Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon for the past 20 years. Jewish World Watch is also rallying support to protest the Chinese government before the Olympics, holding monthly vigils in front of the Chinese Consulate in downtown Los Angeles.

Actress Anjelica Huston (photo, right) co-hosted the event and emerged on stage wearing a professional business suit, looking radiant as ever while reading an excerpt from one of Kyi’s essays, “Freedom From Fear.”

A bright-eyed Khin Phyu Htway, who left Burma in 1999, expressed her gratitude to the 200 guests in attendance. “Burmese people will be in high spirits knowing Americans support them,” she said.

Irish musician Damien Rice delivered a heartfelt performance and lamented the status of 70,000 child soldiers who are forced to fight in the Burmese military.Throughout the night speakers repeated a popular, powerful phrase coined by the detained Kyi, which reflected the sentiment of the event’s cause: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

— Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer

Sing a Song for Sheba


(From left) Honoree professor Arnon Nagler, honoree Cathy Schulman, co-chair Lynn Ziman, and co-chairs Sheldon and Annie Lehrer.

The Friends of Sheba Medical Center Awards Gala on March 16 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel drew 400 enthusiastic supporters who raised their voices in singing “Yom Uledet Sameach,” or “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew, to congratulate both the State of Israel and a prominent Israeli charity on their 60th birthdays.

Cathy Schulman, Academy Award-winning producer of “Crash” and the recently released documentary “Darfur Now,” received the Sheba Humanitarian Award.In accepting the award Schulman, the president of Mandalay Pictures, described “Crash,” which deals with issues of race and diversity, as “the most rejected film in history,” but stressed her belief in producing films that can “make a change for the better.”

Also honored was Tel Aviv University professor Arnon Nagler, while Marjorie Pressman paid special tribute to the memory of former Sheba Board member J. Paul Levine.

The gala also raised funds to benefit the Sigi & Marilyn Ziering National Center for Newborn Screening, which tests Israeli newborns for 20 treatable genetic diseases at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, a leading healthcare facility throughout Israel and the Middle East.

— Peter Rothholz, Contributing Writer

A Piece of Familiarity


Myanmar, tucked in the middle of Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, has had a rather turbulent history that continues today. Travel there would not appeal to those less inclined toward adventure, but my husband and I prefer such destinations. So, we boarded Myanmar Airways International in Bangkok and flew into Yangon International Airport, where we deplaned to find members of the national military waiting to "greet" us. Their job, among other things, was to make sure that we exchanged the obligatory $200 for their local currency before we could retrieve our luggage.

After finding our guide — a very intelligent, educated and charming young man — we loaded up and set out for our hotel. He began to tell us a bit about his country, formerly called Burma. About 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, and Myanmar is home to one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world, the Shwedagon Pagoda. But we were amazed to learn that in Yangon (formerly called Rangoon), a city of 4 million people, there is a synagogue.

I was compelled to find this place and, before we went any farther, I asked our guide to please take us there. We parked a block away and walked through a bustling Islamic neighborhood. Then we came upon the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. We wanted to go inside, but the gate was locked. With that, our guide walked back down the street, somehow found the Islamic shamas, or caretaker, who helps to maintain the synagogue, and he gladly came to let us in. He then asked in Burmese if we would like to meet Mr. Samuels, who manages the congregation. We of course said yes, and were asked to wait in a small open side office.

Now this was amazing. As we looked around and saw all things familiar, including pictures of their last Chanukah celebration, we realized that in this far away land, we were anxiously waiting to meet one of our own. Within five minutes Moses Samuels walked through the gate. Dressed in the typical longyi, or wrapped fabric "skirt" worn by all men and women in Myanmar, he also donned a small kippah on his head. He invited us to sit down in his office and we told each other a bit about ourselves.

Thank heavens his English was very good. We came to learn that the Jewish community of Yangon (and all of Myanmar, for that matter) consisted of eight families whose combined numbers equal 23. We found it most interesting that this Sephardic Jew was third-generation Burmese. Although there is no longer a rabbi, Samuels told us that he and his 20-year-old son (now the fourth-generation Jew to be born here) open the circa-1854 synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning "in case a Jew should come and want to pray." He proudly told us that with the addition of tourists and some embassy personnel, there were 45 people in attendance during last year’s High Holiday services.

We then stood up and walked to the entrance of the synagogue.

With one motion, the doors swung open revealing the magical interiors of this sacred space. The central bimah platform was draped in beautifully embroidered cloths. Samuels proudly pointed out the special front seating for the Koheins and walked us right up to the ark so that we could see the silver encased Torah scrolls. There were tables with many different prayer books that had been left by visitors, but the one that surprised us the most was the copy of the old black-covered Union Prayer Book, that has been long out of print from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism). There was a chest in the corner where they kept their fine antique Hebrew prayer books and, realizing that they had not been stored properly, I said that I would send information from a friend of mine who works with rare books so that he could lend some advice to better preserve these treasures. It was a wonderful visit and we left a donation to help him support the perpetuation of this once thriving synagogue.

Myanmar is kept isolated from the rest of the world by a strong and controlling military regime. It also holds the distinction of being one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Later that day, as we stood at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important shrine in all of Myanmar, I was taken with the idea that "poor" was not a word that I would ever use to describe this place. There is a richness of spirit that words cannot express. Although this was an afternoon of disparate history, we were surprised to be left feeling a small connection to part of it.

If you would like to send greetings to the Jewish community of Yangon, write to Moses Samuels, Trustee, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, No. 85 26th St., Yangon, Myanmar.