'Crown jewel' of Jewish community to open early next year

Dr Daniel Kahn, head of the Sir Manasseh Meyer International School, with some of its pupils.
Dr Daniel Kahn, head of the Sir Manasseh Meyer International School, with some of its pupils.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

International school's new $40m campus will be able to admit 500 students, up from 170 at its current premises

Singapore's only Jewish international school will open its new $40 million campus in the first quarter of next year.

The Sir Manasseh Meyer International School (SMMIS) in Jalan Ulu Sembawang will be completely wireless and have a rooftop swimming pool and football field. It will be able to take in 500 students - more than its capacity of 170 students at the current campus in Belvedere Close, off Tanglin Road.

The school, which admits students aged 18 months to 14 years, is bursting at its seams, with part of its assembly hall partitioned into classrooms. The SMMIS will continue to be run by American-born Daniel Kahn, who has been heading the school for about three years.

Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, 47, the spiritual leader of Singapore's Jewish community, calls the Sembawang campus "the crown jewel" of the Jewish community here.

It was his wife, Mrs Simcha Abergel, who founded the school in 1996. It began as a nursery for young children, and was called the Ganenu Learning Centre. Mrs Abergel headed it till 2005, a year before she gave birth to her fifth child. Mrs Abergel is now SMMIS' head of Jewish Studies. Mrs Odelia Rivni, the wife of Assistant Rabbi Netanel Rivni, also teaches at the school.

  • Roots, welfare and culture

    The history of the Jewish community in Singapore goes as far back as the late 1800s. Here are some interesting facts about the community's roots and culture.

  • 1. Singapore’s first Jewish settlers were of Baghdadi origin. They fled persecution by the Ottomans in the Iraqi city for Asia. They spoke Arabic and, once in Singapore, adopted the Malay language too. They were Sephardic Jews, hailing mainly from the Middle East. Their cuisine is spicier than that of their fellow Jews the Ashkenazis, whose roots are in France, Germany and Eastern Europe.

  • 2. There are about 2,500 Jews here today, from about 25 nationalities, but only about 180 among them are descendants of Singapore’s early settlers. The rest are expatriates. Most of Singapore’s original Jewish community are Orthodox Jews. In fact, the Jews of Singapore are the only remaining indigenous Jews of Asia, says Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, who has been the Rabbi of Singapore for 21 years.

  • 3. Rabbi Abergel is the spiritual leader of the Jewish community here, assisted by Rabbi Netanel Rivni and Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun, the last of whom Rabbi Abergel appointed as rabbi of the nascent community of Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Abergel says that, to Orthodox Jews, “prayer is an intensely personal experience”, and when they keep the Jewish day of rest or Sabbath, which is from sundown on Friday till nightfall on Saturday, they do not use anything electrical or electronic.

  • 4. The Jewish Welfare Board helps the community from cradle to grave, so no needy Jew has to worry about, say, his medical bills. The board’s members are all volunteers and elected yearly by the community.

  • 5. In November 2007, the Jewish community finally had a kosher restaurant, Awafi, and an air-conditioned kosher minimart, both within the seven-storey Jacob Ballas Centre in Waterloo Street.

Rabbi Abergel says: "Typically, when a Jewish family comes to Singapore, what they are concerned about is whether there is good Jewish education. So my wife and I immediately set out to found the Jewish school here... with just a handful of students then."

In 2008, the Ganenu Learning Centre was renamed Sir Manasseh Meyer International School, after the Singapore-based tycoon and philanthropist. In 1922, Sir Manasseh had given Albert Einstein US$300,000 when the famous physicist visited Singapore to raise funds for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

Dr Kahn says Sir Manasseh began thinking more about education after Einstein's visit, and later left his fortune to support education in Singapore and Judaism through the Sir Manasseh Meyer Synagogue and School Trust.

While students pay fees, SMMIS gives out bursaries to its needy students "to make sure that the school is not just for wealthy people, but for all who are interested in having an international and Jewish-oriented education", says Dr Kahn.

The school has its own board of trustees and is run independently of the Jewish Welfare Board. Many among the school's trustees also sit on the welfare board.

Dr Kahn, whom students like to greet with a high-five, stresses that the school strives to teach children how to think. They learn reading by how words sound, take notes by hand to boost their memory and solve problems by tapping various disciplines. As an example of the school's inter-disciplinary approach, if its students are studying the French Revolution, they will also read Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities and, perhaps, listen to music from that Romantic age such as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

It is all based on research about the best ways to learn, including studies by the National Science Foundation in the United States, Dr Kahn adds.

Chinese and Hebrew are also taught at SMMIS, as are art and music "so that everybody has an opportunity to shine in something".

There are students from 19 nationalities, with names such as Yarden, Ji Won and Tamir, and at least 15 Singaporeans on the teaching roster. Among them is Mr Mohanjit Singh Sandhu, 33, a former banking officer who now chairs the school's mathematics department.

The school also uses the popular Singapore-produced My Pals series of textbooks and workbooks to teach maths. Pupils learn about Singapore in Kindergarten 2, Grade 1 and Grade 4.

Above all, the school emphasises Jewish values in all its lessons - values that resonate universally, Dr Kahn notes. "For example, we have something called tikkun olam which kind of means heal the world... The idea is that creating the world was an act of violence, and (while) God could have put the world back together perfectly because he is God, he didn't because he wanted to give Man the opportunity to heal the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline ''Crown jewel' of Jewish community to open early next year'. Print Edition | Subscribe