August 18, 2019

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.