I witnessed history this weekend. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in Yangon—Myanmar’s biggest city—Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, and Hindu leaders came together in a synagogue to remember the life of Moses Samuels, who, since 1979, and like his father before him, took care of Musmeah Yeshua, the only synagogue in the country.
For more than 35 years, Samuels welcomed visitors from all backgrounds into the small entrance on 26th street. On his way in, he would schmooze with local business owners or hand out chocolate to kids. He invited members of different faiths to come light candles on Hanukkah, a holiday he loved. That may explain the diverse makeup of the 200 or so people who came to the synagogue on Sunday, not as visitors or tourists, but as mourners. On May 29, Samuels succumbed to throat cancer. He was 65.
Besides the interfaith delegation, there was Than Than Nu, the daughter of Myanmar’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, U Nu. Moses became friendly with the family due to the close ties between Nu and Israeli leaders in the 1950s and early 1960s. And there were Jewish expatriates, as well as ambassadors from the United States, Canada and Israel. Also there were a few members of Myanmar’s tiny Jewish community, including Sammy Samuels, Moses’s only son.
Under the high ceilings of the colonial-era synagogue, Sammy paid tribute to his father’s dedication. “Every day, doesn’t matter rain or sun, he is feeling well or not, but one thing [my father] want[ed] to make sure is that the gate of the synagogue is unlocked,” Sammy said. He added that his father’s daily walk should have taken no more than 10 minutes, but with all the stops and conversations, it was more like an hour.
At its height, the Jewish community in Myanmar numbered around 3,000 people, with the majority hailing from Iraq; Moses was also of Iraqi descent. Most Jews permanently fled Burma (as it was then known) to escape Japanese bombing campaigns during World War II. The Samuels family was one of the exceptions. The local Jewish community has about 20 people left now.
At times Moses was asked why he bothered. “He said he does not want any Jewish visitor in this country to feel [like] a stranger,” Sammy said.
The date of the memorial service stirred memories of earlier family gatherings.
“As you all know, today is Father’s day. And last year at exactly this time, this evening, we were having dinner together, my family and my wife, and we gave [my father] a gift. But this year we can’t give him any physical gift. But having all of you here—the ambassadors, leaders from different communities, friends and families—all together here praying for him and praising his work and dedication, I think that will be the greatest gift. And I’m sure he would love it very much.”
After Sammy’s eulogy, Daniel Zonshine, Israeli’s ambassador to Myanmar, took Sammy Samuels’s place at the lectern. He said that the thought of Moses not being at the synagogue to greet visitors was “very painful.”
“The torch goes now to the next generation, to keep and to hold. Continue the next link in the chain of Jewish tradition and Jewish presence in Myanmar,” he said.
The microphone was then passed to the group of spiritual leaders who were seated together on the bima. They each said a prayer in a variety of languages, with one asking God to “bless each and every one of your sons and daughters living here in Myanmar and praying together in this synagogue because it is the way of you that we must be one.”
Sammy read the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Afterwards, guests talked and shared their memories over coffee, soda and sandwiches. I caught up with Sammy briefly. He said that going forward he would focus his efforts on getting more expatriate Jews to visit the synagogue, over which he now presides.
The future of the community may be uncertain, but Sammy will do what his father did before him, and Jewish visitors will not feel like strangers.
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Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.