YANGON — Musmeah Yeshua is the last surviving synagogue in Myanmar. The synagogue has stood in the centre of downtown Yangon for more than 100 years. At its height, it served a community of some 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 Myanmar. We are proud of it,” boasts Sammy Samuels, a spokesperson for Musmeah Yeshua.
The 120-year-old synagogue is nestled between Indian paint shops and Muslim trader stalls at the corner of 26th Street. Just a few years ago there was virtually no one here.
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Yangon's 26th Street — Photo: Esme Vos
But thanks to a recent rise in tourism into the country, the synagogue has become one of the top tourist attractions in Yangon, the former capital of the country once known as Burma, and today referred to as Myanmar. “In the past, if there were 4 to 5 visitors, it was a busy day," says Samuels. "But now there are 50 to 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. An immigrant Jewish community started to arrive in Burma in around 1850. They were merchants exporting rice and teak to the Middle East and India. Trade boomed, and a decade later Yangon had a major Sephardic Jewish community of about 2,500 people.
Hub and symbol
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.
“It’s a Jewish life that doesn’t exist any longer, you know," notes one visitor named Danny Eyal. "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.”
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Photo: Esme Vos
The synagogue is still a hub in the community. It holds intercultural meetings and festivals throughout the year, attracting people of all religions, Sammy Samuels says. “There used to be only Jewish people visiting the venue but now we receive Muslims, Christians, Japanese and Chinese — pretty much everyone!”
Among the Jews from around the world who come to pray are Jeffery and Norman 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."
Samuel’s family has been looking after the synagogue for generations. “For our family, the synagogue is very important. My grandfather asked my father to promise to take care of the synagogue as long as he lives. If the synagogue closes, nobody will know about the 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.