JTA – Singapore’s Jewish history is palpable in its streets: there is Manasseh Lane and Meyer Road, named after the very influential Manasseh Meyer, a Baghdadi Jew and first leader of the Jewish community who helped open two of its Sephardic synagogues .
Along Middle Road, 19th century buildings bearing the Stars of David and the names of the Jewish businessmen who built them line the street, marking what was once the ‘Mahallah’ or Jewish Quarter, where 1,500 lived. Jews in the mid-twentieth century. century.
In fact, in the Southeast Asian city of 5.7 million people – mostly Chinese, Malaysian and Indian ethnic migrants and only 2,500 Jews – the city-state’s countless roads and landmarks are named after influential Jews of the past and their achievements.
But in their 200-year rich history, the Jews of Singapore have never had a place of their own to show the history of their people, until now. In the old Mahallah and on the ground floor of the Jacob Ballas Community Center – named after the Jewish Iraqi philanthropist who chaired the Singapore and Malaysia Stock Exchange in the 1960s – a new museum tells the story of the most former Southeast Asian Jewish community, beginning with the arrival of the first Jew in 1819.
“It’s really important for Singaporeans to know the role Jews have played in the 200-year history, and it has been significant,” said Ben Benjamin, a member of the Singapore Jewish Welfare Board who ran the museum. “We wanted to demonstrate that not only on the Jewish people of Singapore, but also on how ‘Singaporean’ Jews are. “
The Singapore Jewish Museum captures the story of a community that has grown and shrunk in size, even as Singapore has grown rapidly. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the local Jewish population was largely made up of emigrants from Iraq and Europe who came to Singapore to escape anti-Semitism and trade, including Benjamin’s family. In the mid-20th century, before World War II, the community numbered 1,500 Jews before declining rapidly; less than 200 lived there in the 1960s.
Today, a record 2,500 Jews live in Singapore. But even though some of the former Baghdadi trading families remain – Benjamin is a fifth generation Iraqi-Singaporean Jew, his wife is a member of the famous Sassoon family – the majority of local Jews are now a diverse mix of Hebrew or English. more recent. – speaking newcomers who have come to invest in one of the world’s technological and financial hubs.
The historic heart of Singapore’s Jewish community, however, “will sadly continue to shrink,” Benjamin said, and the museum is making an effort to preserve it.
The museum highlights a time when some of Singapore’s most important figures were Jewish, such as David Marshall, who became the city-state’s chief prime minister in 1955. Guests can scan QR codes to hear voices and speeches by Marshall and other prominent figures, and view videos, photographs and artifacts from the community’s rich past and present.
“Some really interesting things were discovered during the conservation process,” Benjamin said. Curators have found photographs of unknown Jewish property such as a seaside resort far in western Singapore, far from the Mahallah.
“It has now been completely demolished to make way for what is Singapore’s industrial heartland,” he said. “We didn’t know that before this museum was created.”
Based on a community-commissioned book published in 2007, the museum is the product of three years of work and preparation still delayed by the pandemic. Finally, on December 2, the museum opened its doors to the public.
“We hope that the stories of our ancestors, most of whom fled persecution in Iraq to settle and prosper in Singapore, will remind us of the importance of welcoming foreigners among us and of strengthening unity and solidarity between followers of different religions. “Nash Benjamin, chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board and brother of Ben Benjamin, said at the opening.
The exhibit is also accessible to everyone via a virtual tour of the museum’s website, where guests can walk around the museum and interact with the exhibit digitally. For non-Jewish members of the Singaporean community, a section of the museum is devoted to illustrating Jewish holidays, culture and religion.
This has been a tumultuous year for the Jews of Singapore. In March, the Jacob Ballas Center, which now houses the museum, held a press conference to announce the arrest of a radicalized Singaporean soldier who planned to kill at least three Jewish men as they left the synagogue. Maghain Aboth. (The community is primarily divided between the two Sephardic Orthodox synagogues built over 100 years ago, Maghain Aboth and Chesed-El, in addition to a smaller Reformed congregation made up mostly of Ashkenazi Jews.)
Justice and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who revealed the planned attack nine months earlier, spoke at the museum’s inauguration.
“As Home Secretary, I have told you more than once that the safety and security of everyone in Singapore, including the Jewish community, is a key priority,” he said.
Singapore, known around the world for its tough legislation, had “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion in 2019, according to the Global Government Restriction Index, despite its constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. In the same year, however, there were low levels of social hostility towards religion.
Benjamin says the Jewish community has always felt safe, protected and supported by the larger community and the government of Singapore, whose National Heritage Board has granted up to 40% of the funding to the Museum of the Jews of Singapore.
The attack planned for earlier this year, he said, came as a shock to Jews in Singapore.
” Life goes on. We feel very safe, very supported in Singapore, ”he said. “And I think we owe it to ourselves, to the 200 year old community to keep trying to build and allow this community to thrive.”
Virtual tours to the Singapore Jewish Museum can be scheduled in line.