Myanmar’s lone synagogue honored by historical group


Myanmar’s only synagogue was recognized by a Yangon historical organization.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, installed a blue heritage plaque Sunday given by the Yangon Heritage Trust. Only 11 other buildings in the city have received similar recognition, the Myanmar Times reported.

“The synagogue was part of a once-flourishing Jewish community in Yangon and a reminder that Yangon has always been, since its founding in the 1750s, home to people with connections across the world,” U Thant Myint-U, the trust’s founder, told the Times. “We have dozens of religious sites, belonging to all major religions, in downtown Yangon, and this is something to be proud of and celebrated.”

Built in the 1890s, when the Southeast Asian country was a British colony and called Burma, the synagogue is located in a busy commercial section downtown.

“I am very proud and very excited for this blue plaque,” said Sammy Samuels, whose family has for generations maintained the synagogue. “It does not just show the architectural significance, but also recognizes the dedication of families and individuals to preserve these buildings.”

In an article published May 11 in the Phoenix Jewish News, Samuels said the family’s commitment to maintaining the synagogue began with his great-grandfather.

“He had a strong attachment to the synagogue. He also was the head of the community at that time, so if he had left, the synagogue would have been closed,” Samuels told the newspaper. “Before he passed away, he made my father promise to keep the synagogue alive. I made a similar promise to my father, as well.”

According to the article, the country’s Jewish population peaked in the early 20th century with 2,500 people. The two-story synagogue is funded by proceeds from Samuels’ travel agency, Myanmar Shalom Travels, which leads tours of Myanmar, and by donations from visitors.

Approximately 40-50 tourists, most of them non-Jewish, visit the synagogue daily, according to Samuels.

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.

Leader of Myanmar’s Jewish community dies


The leader of Myanmar’s small Jewish community and the caretaker of the country’s only synagogue has died.

Moses Samuels, 65, passed away on May 29, his son, Sammy, wrote in an email obtained by Coconuts Yangon, a media source. No cause of death was identified, but Samuels had been battling cancer for several years.

“For over 35 years he has been taken care [sic] of Yangon Synagogue and the Jewish community” Sammy Samuels wrote. “And he made sure [of] keeping the Jewish Spirit alive in Myanmar. He is great person with very good heart. His legacy will continue to live in the hearts and minds of everyone who came across to know him. May Hashem [the Lord] bless his Soul.”

The Samuels family has looked over the Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue in Yangon – Myanmar’s former capital and largest city, with a population of over 5 million – for generations. Moses Samuels inherited the task of synagogue caretaker from his father and grandfather. Now his son will assume the role of keeping the synagogue open.

Along with his son, Samuels is survived by his wife, Nelly, and two daughters, Dina and Kaznah, who graduated from Yeshiva University in New York a few years ago.

Before World War II, Myanmar’s Jewish community flourished, and Yangon’s synagogue had 126 Torah scrolls. Today it is estimated that only a few dozen Jews remain in the country.

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.

Briefs: Methodists don’t ‘divest,’ Jewish groups mobilize for Myanmar, Reno TV anchor sues


Methodists Reject Divestment Proposals

Methodists overwhelmingly defeated measures calling for divestment from companies that allegedly enable Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The resolutions, targeting companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures tractors, and Motorola, which manufactures security systems, had drawn much media scrutiny before last week’s United Methodist Church General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jewish groups were even more offended by a background document prepared in connection with the motions than they were by the notion of divestment itself. According to Jewish groups, the document was dismissive of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism and ventured into “replacement theology,” the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism.

An alliance of grass-roots church activists, who nurture ties to the Jewish community, helped defeat five divestment resolutions, often in the early stages of the conference. The activists also helped pass resolutions opposing the proselytizing of Jews and promoting Holocaust awareness and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together national and local organizations, attended the conference. He credited outreach by Jewish groups across the country to sympathetic Methodists and called the defeat of the resolutions a “turning point.”

“The church has spoken that they don’t want this one-sided approach to their witness,” Felson said Friday, the final day of the conference. “This wasn’t about a national campaign, it was about community to community. This was about relationships.”

U.S. Orthodox Rabbis Assail Israeli Rabbinical Court on Nullifying Conversions

American Orthodox rabbis slammed the decision by an Israeli rabbinical court to nullify conversions by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said Tuesday that the ruling, which retroactively nullified the conversions performed under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, was “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice,” is a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and constitutes a “massive desecration of God’s name.”

“The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued by that court,” according to a statement by the organization.

According to the RCA, it has received assurances from Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the ruling by the Rabbinic Court of Appeals has no legal standing.

The episode is the latest to rouse concerns over who is authorized to perform conversions recognized by the Jewish state.

In February, the RCA announced an agreement with the chief rabbinate recognizing 15 American courts and some 40 Orthodox rabbis in North America authorized to perform conversions. A group of liberal Orthodox rabbis said the agreement represented a capitulation to the increasingly stringent standards of the Israeli rabbinate.

Jewish Groups Mobilize For Myanmar

Both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and B’nai B’rith International have opened disaster relief funds to send aid to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, where at least 22,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless after the May 3 cyclone.

The JDC’s International Development Program, which responds to natural and manmade disasters providing immediate relief and long-term assistance, collects funds on a nonsectarian basis. The JDC is helping some of the region’s estimated 10 Jews.

The B’nai B’rith disaster relief fund will allocate $10,000 to help IsraAID send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar. The team is cooperating with the local United Nations office and Israel’s embassy in the region.

Tel Aviv-based IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, is an umbrella organization of more than 35 Israeli and Jewish nongovernmental organizations active in development and relief work.


For more information, contact the JDC at www.jdc.org or (212) 687-6200; or B’nai B’rith at www.bnaibrith.org/support/disaster_relief.cfm.

To donate to the LA Federation’s Emergency Relief Fund, call (323) 761-8200 or send a check to: The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048. Please make checks payable to The Jewish Federation with the words “Myanmar Relief Fund” in the memo line.

To contribute to AJWS, visit www.ajws.org, or call (800) 889-7146. Checks can be sent to: American Jewish World Service, Burma Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.


London Mayor Critical of Israel Loses Bid for Re-election to Third Term

Ken Livingstone, a frequent critic of Israel, was beaten in London’s mayoral election.

The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson received 53.2 percent of the vote last Saturday to 46.8 for Livingstone, the Labor incumbent. Johnson was sworn in the same day.

Livingstone has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and refused to apologize after comparing a Jewish journalist from London to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The first person to serve as the mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Livingstone served two terms.

Johnson has worked to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been a supporter of Israel. He opposed a call last year by Britain’s University College Union to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.

During a trip to Israel in November 2004, Johnson visited Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market shortly after a suicide bombing and toured the West Bank security fence, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Judaism Trumps Nationality Among Israelis

Jewish identity takes precedence over national identity for most Israelis, a poll found.

According to the survey in Tuesday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, 65 percent of Israeli Jews identified primarily as Jews and only then as Israelis, whereas 14 percent said the reverse. Nine percent said they don’t know in which order they identify.

Asked whether they want Israel to be more Jewish or more democratic, 47 percent said the former and 43 percent the latter, with the rest undecided.

The poll reflected mixed feelings among Israeli Jews about their country’s future as it celebrates its 60th Independence Day, though most made clear they would not want to live elsewhere.

Asked to rate their “personal mood” on an ascending scale of one to 10, the average number given was seven. The “national mood” was a more gloomy 5.8.

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.