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On the Road to Mandalay: A Synagogue in Myanmar

by Julie Benson

December 8, 2000 - Those of you who know me, know that I have a passion for unusual travel experiences. This past October, David and I found ourselves half way around the world traveling through Myanmar (formerly Burma). This country, tucked in between Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, has only been open to tourism for the last several years. 

With approximately 90 percent of the population being Buddhist and home to one of the greatest man-made wonders of the world, the Shwedagon Pagoda, we were amazed to learn that in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), a large city of 4 million people, there is a Jewish Synagogue.
I was compelled to find this place and asked our guide to please take us. We parked a block away and walked through a bustling Islamic neighborhood, where standing tall and proud since 1854, was the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. 

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With all that is happening in Israel right now, we found it very interesting that such peace of cohabitation could exist in this part of the world. The gate was locked, but our guide soon found the Islamic Shamas and he gladly opened it to let us in. He immediately asked our guide 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. 

This was amazing! As we looked around and saw all things familiar to us in this far away land, including pictures of last year's Chanukah Celebration, we realized that we were anxiously waiting to meet one of our own.

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Within five minutes, Mr. Moses Samuels, dressed in the typical longyi, or wrapped fabric "skirt" worn by all men and women in Myanmar, walked through the gate. He was also donning a small kippah. 

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 Burma, 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 "Rebbe", Mr. Samuels told us that he and his 20-year-old son (now the fourth generation Jew to be born here) open the synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning "in case a Jew should come and want to pray." 
He proudly told us that between tourists and some Foreign Embassy personnel, that there were 45 people in attendance at this year's High Holiday Services.

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When we stood up and walked over to the entrance of the Synagogue, the doors swung open revealing the magical interiors of this sacred space. I could still feel the presence of the women and children up in the balconies and the central bimah platform was draped in beautifully embroidered cloths. 

Mr. 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 kinds of different prayer books that had been left by visitors, but the one that surprised us the most was the copy of our old small black Union Prayer Book. There was a chest in the corner where they kept some very fine antique Hebrew prayer books and realizing that they have not been kept properly, I said that I would give a friend at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati a call to lend some advice. 
It was a wonderful visit and we left a donation to help him support the perpetuation of this once thriving Synagogue.

Mynamar 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, we were taken with the idea that "poor" was not a word that we would use to describe this place. There is a richness of spirit that words cannot express. This was an afternoon of living history and we were left with many feelings and emotions.

Now that we are back home, from very far away I am comforted knowing that Mr. Samuels and his son will open the synagogue every Friday and Saturday for the eight families and any other Jew who may find themselves in Yangon for the Sabbath. 

I know that come this Chanukah, their celebration will continue just as it always has for generations, albeit with fewer in attendance. They will teach their children the traditions of our faith amidst a community of Islamic neighbors in a country where the word of Buddha is paramount.
If you would like to send Chanukah greetings to this small Jewish community in Yangon, the address is:

Mr. Moses Samuels, Trustee
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
No. 85, 26th Street
Yangon, Myanmar

From my family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Chanukah. 



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