Judaism in Singapore: Silent but thriving

Born out of the Baghdadi Trade Diaspora in the 18th and 19th century, Singapore’s Jewish community has grown and called this island nation their home— but what do we really know about our Jewish neighbours and Judaism in general?

When we hear “Judaism”, the mind’s eye is quick to zone in on various popular keywords such as Steven Spielberg, the Rothschilds, Jew, Jerusalem, Hanukkah or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Well, you’re not entirely wrong.

Judaism, is one of the oldest monotheistic faiths in the world today and has had a head start of 3,500 years to cultivate a rich history of religious thought and culture. However, little is known about the Torah, halakha (Jewish religious law), the importance of the colour blue, eating kosher or Shabbat, the holy day of rest— the quintessentials of Judaism.

What do we really know about Judaism and, did you know that there was a Jewish community established in Singapore?— here’s the rundown.

Who is a Jew?

Photo: Josh Appel

The Jewish identity, bestowed upon through matrilineal inheritance by Jewish mothers, is a complex one, as it transcends across culture, heritage, nationality or ethnicity.

Culturally, Judaism is its foods, customs, language, and clothes.

Ultimately, the Jewish identity is characterised by being born Jewish, culturally identifying as one or carrying out your life as a practising Jew according to the religious tenets, or both.

Judaism is a way of life and a worldview and not so much of a dogma. The lives of the Jewish people revolves around the religion and not the other way around. And the greatest challenge for the Jewish people is to pass on the identity of (being) Jewish, with the values inherent in Judaism to the future generations where every action is an act of worship – even a simple act has cosmic significance.

The Religious Makeup of Judaism

Photo: Tanner Mardis

Judaism is divided into various sects or denominations. The main branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic, each unique in their own set of context and observance.

At its core, are the basic laws and tenets derived from the Torah, which is the holiest text and makes up the first 5 books of the Bible. All adherents to Judaism also keep faith in the 13 core principles of the Jewish faith.

All Jews also believe in the arrival of the Messiah, much to the misconceptions of many, it isn’t Jesus Christ, much to the misconceptions of many, it isn’t Jesus Christ. The arrival of the Messiah will bring the age of completion to the world; global peace and prosperity.

What’s surprising in this day and age is despite their diverging practices and understanding of the Jewish laws, they share set overarching fundamental beliefs that serve as a unifying force binding the entire community and strengthens each individual’s Jewish identity.

They say, to be Jewish is to live the faith. Every week, religious Jews celebrate Sabbath, a holy day of rest from sundown on Friday night to Saturday’s nightfall where Jews refrain from engaging in “work”. In modern times, this is usually demonstrated as forgoing modern-day accouterments such as electricity and cars.

Jews and Singapore go way back

Photo: Singapore Jews

The Jewish community has come a long way to Singapore, about 9,000 km to be exact.

Singapore’s Jewish community was founded by the descendants of the Baghdadi community, of whom spoke Arabic and hailed from the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, and then settled in both Bombay and Calcutta.

In the 18th and 19th century, an imminent persecution of Jews under the Ottoman governor coupled with the convenience of the British East India Company and their trade routes saw to the large exodus of Jewish traders to Singapore.

Interestingly, little did they know then that this pioneer wave of Jewish Immigration would lay the groundwork for the Jewish community in Singapore to grow in both Sephardim and Ashkenazi Jews in years to come.

Judaism in Singapore thriving, but free from anti-semitism?

Photo: Jamie Koh

The Jewish community in Singapore has been headed by Chief Rabbi of Singapore, Rabbi Mordechai Abergel since 1997.

Fast forward to today, the numbers of this once tiny ethnic minority have grown substantially in numbers of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews from all nationalities.

The first synagogue was built on the street that still bears its name to this day, Synagogue Street. Adherents of the Jewish faith were seen to travel by rickshaw when observing Sabbath— now that’s something you won’t see that every day.

The Jewish community remains tight-knit and has made their mark in Singapore’s rich and diverse multicultural weave born from generations of mutual understanding and respect.

However, it is important to note that continuous effort is required to maintain a vibrant and thriving Jewish community. Singapore’s unique location between Muslim nations of Southeast Asia should not be taken for granted.

Communication is a Two-way Street

To seek answers and better understanding is to find harmony in a multi-cultural society— and this begins with a conversation.

Asia does not have a history of anti-semitism. Particularly in Singapore where tolerance and respect for people from different faiths are practised and where the Jewish community has called home for generations.

From it came the two largest faiths of in the world, Christianity and Islam and yet, why can’t they all get along?

To begin to understand one another’s faiths, beliefs, and religions is to lay all our cards on the table— shine the light in the darkest of places, and you’ll never know what you’ll find.

Judaism is very much the faith of the community, and as God’s chosen people, they hereby set an example by living true to the tenets of the faith. Where does the Jewish community, even here in Singapore, stand in their views on Palestine?

This begs the question, do all Jews support the State of Israel? Do they hold the same views on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement?  If not, are they marginalized within their own communities?

To be one of the oldest faiths in the world is to court intrigue. Do away with the speculations and join AskMeAnything in an open-dialogue on Judaism on the 11th of November 2018, Sunday.

Organized by The White Hatters, these sessions provide a safe, judgment-free space to ask questions otherwise deemed taboo.

Reserve a spot by heading over to Ask Me Anything on Judaism, registrations are now open.


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