Old synagogues buzzing with life

From places of worship to educational institutions to former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the second of a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each of their stories is a yarn that is woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

The voices of Rotem Benor, 12, and Rabbi Yehouda Cohen, 22, filled the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built in 1878, in Waterloo Street. 

The Canadian Rabbi, who joined the community here two years ago, was teaching the boy how to sing the Torah, the Jewish holy book, in preparation for his bar mitzvah next month - a ceremony marking a boy's religious maturity when he turns 13 .

The duo are among the young faces in Singapore's Jewish community, which numbers between 2,000 and 2,500. The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is one of two synagogues here, along with the Chesed-El Synagogue in Oxley Rise.

Both were gazetted as national monuments in 1998. 

The two synagogues are at the centre of activities of the Jewish community here, which comprises Singapore-born Jews and expatriates from across the globe. 


The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is led by Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, who is also the spiritual leader of Singapore's Jewish community. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

For instance, Rotem came here with his family from Israel about nine years ago. 

He said: "We celebrate various events such as Passover with the rest of the community. Being together with everyone is really fun. I feel connected with my culture although I'm far away from home." 

Both the Maghain Aboth and Chesed-El synagogues were constructed with arks which are oriented westwards to face Jerusalem.

Arks are decorated receptacles where Torah scrolls are stored.

Merchant and philanthropist Manasseh Meyer, who came to Singapore in the mid-1800s, played a crucial role in the construction of the synagogues.

In the middle of both prayer halls are bimahs, a podium or platform from where the rabbi or reader leads the congregational prayers. 


The Maghain Aboth, built in 1878, is the oldest surviving synagogue in South-east Asia. Its design incorporates traditional architectural features such as Roman columns and arches. Visitors can also see three Stars of David on the building's facade. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

The Maghain Aboth is the oldest surviving synagogue in South-east Asia. Its design includes traditional Roman columns, pilasters and arches, and its facade bears three Stars of David. 

Fourth-generation (Singapore-born) Jew Sol Solomon, 55, a freelance writer who provides administrative support to Chesed-El, said both synagogues are critical to the community. 

 

He said: "We are very fortunate that history has allowed us to have these two places where we can continue to pray and fulfil our traditions and religious obligations. We are also fortunate that they are heritage buildings." 

The country's first and now defunct synagogue was built in the 1840s in a shophouse along fittingly named Synagogue Street in Boat Quay. It served the Jewish community who lived in the Boat Quay area near Raffles Place.

According to research by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), a division under the National Heritage Board, the need for a bigger place of worship arose as a growing number of Jews began moving into residences in the Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah areas. The community comprised Jews of Iraqi Sephardic descent and European Ashkenazi Jews, added the PSM. 

Mr Meyer approached then Attorney-General Thomas Braddell in 1873 for permission to sell the shophouse synagogue and acquire land for a new one. His request was granted, resulting in the construction of the Maghain Aboth.


The facade of Chesed-El Synagogue features ornate plasterwork, continuous cornices and heavy ornamentation. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

As the community grew, Mr Meyer, who owned property along Oxley Rise, built the Chesed-El synagogue in 1905. 

Designed in the late Renaissance style by Mr R. A. J. Bidwell of colonial architectural firm Swan and Maclaren, Chesed-El's facade features ornate floral plasterwork, continuous cornices and heavy ornamentation, said the PSM.

Contributing to its grand appearance is a three-arched carriage porch at its entrance. The structure also features Corinthian columns and large arched windows throughout the building. 

Records show that scientist Albert Einstein described the Oxley Rise place of worship as "magnificent" when he visited Mr Meyer and the Jewish community here in 1922. 

These days, the Chesed-El Synagogue hosts about 40 regulars. The congregation is led by Rabbi Cohen and cantor Jean-Pierre Fettman. Rabbi Cohen also assists at the Maghain Aboth. 

The synagogue is now undergoing a five-month restoration project which includes work like rectifying cracks in its old marble floors. It will also be given a fresh coat of paint.


Located in Oxley Rise, Chesed-El Synagogue was built in 1905, and was described as "magnificent" by scientist Albert Einstein. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

The Maghain Aboth, led by Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, 48, is attended by 100 to 200 regulars. Some of the services and facilities in its Waterloo Street compound include an air-conditioned kosher minimart and kosher restaurant called Awafi. 

There are a total of four rabbis here. The others are Rabbi Netanel Rivni and Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun, who assist Rabbi Abergel.

Rabbi Abergel, who is also the spiritual leader of Singapore's Jewish community, said the role of the synagogues today remains largely the same as it was in the past.

He said: "Our aim is to always build on and develop infrastructure to tend to the needs of the Jewish community. We want to make sure a person can move to Singapore where he or she can live a very vibrant and purposeful Jewish life." 


THROUGH THE YEARS

1840s
Country's first and now defunct synagogue was built in a shophouse in Synagogue Street in Boat Quay. 

1873
Philanthropist Manasseh Meyer sought permission to sell the shophouse synagogue and acquire land for a new one, which resulted in the construction of the Maghain Aboth.

1905
As the Jewish community grew, Mr Meyer built the Chesed-El Synagogue in Oxley Rise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Old synagogues buzzing with life'. Print Edition | Subscribe