The first Jews to settle there were of Baghdadi origin, mainly from India, who migrated to Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post in Singapore in 1819, to find new opportunities.
In 1840, shortly after the Sultan relinquished ownership of Singapore to England (in 1824), the Jewish community was large enough to build a synagogue, on what is still known today as “Synagogue Street” (located in the Financial District), seating 40 people.
Within thirty years, the community had grown significantly, necessitating the building of a larger Synagogue. In 1875, the community purchased land on what was then called “Church Street” to build a larger Synagogue. In 1878, Maghain Aboth Synagogue was established. It is now the oldest synagogue in East Asia.
An interesting and influential figure in Singapore at the turn of the 20th century was Sir Manasseh Meyer. A wealthy Jew and a great philanthropist, he was knighted by King George V in March 1929 for his contribution to Singapore.
In 1905, as the community grew, Sir Manasseh Meyer built his own synagogue, Chesed El, on his private estate. His son, Reuben, also dedicated a community center in his name. Both synagogues have been gazetted as national monuments by the Singapore government.
The 1931 census records that the 832 Jews and the larger number of Arab residents were the largest house property owners in the city.
There were over 1,500 Jewish inhabitants by 1939 when World War II broke out. In 1942, the Japanese invaded Singapore, in a daring surprise attack. Many of the Jews were interned by the Japanese, who were part of the Axis Powers during World War II. After the war, quite a few emigrated to Australia, England, the United States, and Israel. As a result, by the late 1960s, the community dwindled to approximately 450.
As trade opportunities increased so did the wealth, influence and population of the Jewish community. Apart from their contribution to commerce, Jews have taken a considerable part in political life of the country and in 1955 David S. Marshall, a Jew of Iraqi origin, became the first chief minister of the Republic, while Dr. Yayah Cohen became Surgeon General.
Today, there are approximately 2000 Jews living in Singapore. Both the Maghain Aboth and Chesed El Synagogues are active. Despite the small numbers, our community has much to offer to her members; a good Jewish education for the youth, weekly discussions, up to the minute gossip and Shabbat luncheons and dinners, as well as a big variety of activities and programs to cater to all the religious, educational and social needs of the community.
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is open throughout the year, with thrice daily services, while Chesed El conducts Monday morning services and opens throughout the High Holidays. The synagogue is the nucleus of the community and embodies a sense of unity and perseverance.
The Jewish Welfare Board, a committee of volunteers elected yearly by the Community oversees and manages the community’s affairs.
Our Rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai and his wife Simcha Abergel have been serving the community tirelessly and assiduously for over 18 years providing many new facilities and services never experienced before in Singapore, and continue to do so together with Rabbi Netanel Rivni and his wife, who arrived in 2007.
Since 2002, the Community, in cooperation with Chabad, sponsors a group of Yeshiva students to help out with the outreach activities and every aspect of Jewish life in Singapore.
In September 2012, the community welcomed two shlichot from the Bnei Akivah Youth Movement to further enhance and develop the quality of our outreach work and add many more programs for the youth.
With the efforts and influence of Mrs. Simcha Abergel and a team of dedicated parents, a Jewish Nursery Day School “Ganenu” was set up in 1996. In 2008, Ganenu has renamed: The Manasseh Meyer School, in memory of the late Sir Manasseh Meyer whose legacy continues to ensure the continuity of Jewish education in Singapore. With over 120 children, its students include children from the local community, and expatriates. The Manasseh Meyer School has expanded into primary school, with classes up to fifth grade. Within a few years, we hope to inaugurate new school premises which will help us provide Jewish and secular education for every child in our community.
In 2007, a new Jewish community center opened next door to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, the Jacob Ballas Centre, named for the late Jacob Ballas O.B.M, a pillar of the Jewish community in Singapore, a successful stockbroker and well-known philanthropist who chaired the Singapore Stock Exchange for a number of years. This remarkable center accommodates and provided all the immediate Jewish needs of our community. It contains offices and apartments for the Rabbis and the Yeshivah Boys, it also has a women’s Mikvah, a slaughtering room for fresh kosher chickens, a full-service restaurant, a kosher shop and a social hall for Shabbat and festival meals and other functions.
The legacy of a number of Jewish people lives on as seen in the names of various buildings, roads, and institutions. Some buildings bear the Star of David, concrete proof of a strong historic presence in Singapore.
Please click here for a more detailed account of the history of the Jewish Community in Singapore
This article is republished with permission from the Middle East Institute, the National University of Singapore It first appeared in Beating the Odds Together: 5- Years of Singapore–Israel Ties, edited by Mattia Tomba which was published in November 2019
Mrs Jean Mary Marshall
Savi J Khafi
Mrs Flossie Joseph; Sion Elias
Frederick Jacob Isaacs
Charlie Daniel Sion
Dr Yahya Cohen