Musmeah Yeshua is the last surviving synagogue in Myanmar. The synagogue has stood in the centre of downtown for over 100 years – in it’s heyday it served a community of about 2,500 Jews.
But a recent rise in tourism has put the synagogue back on the map.
“People from Germany and Europe are amazed to know that there was a Synagogue in a country like Burma. We are proud of it.”
Sammy Samuels is a spokesperson for Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. The Synagogue nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim trader stalls at the corner of 26thStreet, is the 120 year old. A few years ago there was virtually no one here.
But thanks to a recent rise in tourism into the country,the synagogue has become one of the top tourist attractions in Yangon. “In the past, if there were 4-5 visitors, it was a busy day. But now there are 50-60 visitors a day.
The Synagogue is one of 188 archaeological heritage buildings in the city. And it’s in possession of two ancient leather-bound Torah scrolls. The Jewish community started to move to Myanmar around 1850. They were merchants exporting rice and teak to the Middle East and India. Trade boomed and a decade later Yangon had a big Sephardic Jewish community – of about 2,500 people.
“At that time, they lived happily. All the children were happy. When the Japanese came, the population reduced steadily”
During Japanese occupation in the Second World War, most of the Jewish community fled. Now there are only about 20 Jewish people in the whole country. One of the visitor is Danny Eyal.
“It’s a Jewish life that doesn’t exist any longer you know. There’s only the owner here and some other guys and that’s all. Five people and that’s all. So on the one hand, it’s sad, as the Jewish community is no longer. But on the other I’m happy to see how it has been preserved.”
The synagogue is still a hub in the community. It holds intercultural meetings and festivals throughout the year, attracting people of all religions, Sammy says. “There used to be only Jewish people visiting the venue but now we receive Muslims, Christians, Japanese and Chinese – pretty much everyone!”
And Jews from all over the world come to pray at the synagogue. Jeffery and Norman are Jewish tourists from London.
“We’ve met people from Israel and America and London who have also come along because they know there’s a synagogue. And just to try and keep it alive. And hopefully People will come more and more and...”
“It will become vibrant again.”
Sammy Samuel’s family have been looking after the synagogue for generations. “For our family the synagogue is very important. Since my grandfather’s time, he asked my father to promise to take care of the synagogue as long as he lives. If the synagogue is closed, nobody will know about Jewish religion.”
At a time when religious tensions in Myanmar are high and outbreaks of violence are continuing throughout the country, the synagogue stands as a symbol that people from all religions can come together in peaceful coexistence.