Singapore Jewish community has deep roots stretching back to 1819

The Jewish community in Singapore can trace its roots all the way back to 1819, when merchants from across Asia arrived to trade.

Some of the earliest records indicate there were nine Jews in Singapore in 1830.

The earliest Jewish families lived near Boat Quay, where the first synagogue was built in the 1840s along what is today Synagogue Street.

As the community grew, the need for a new place of worship arose, and construction of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street began. It was completed in 1878, and is the oldest standing synagogue in South-east Asia.

A second place of worship, Chesed-El Synagogue in Oxley Rise, was opened in 1905.

Both buildings were gazetted as national monuments in 1998. Today, they remain at the centre of religious activities for the community, which numbers around 2,500, comprising Singaporeans as well as expatriates from across the globe.

Since 2007, the community has met for activities at the Jacob Ballas Centre, next to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.

A large number of the early Jewish immigrants hailed from India and the Middle East, and for many, their main language was Arabic.

During the Japanese Occupation, many Jews who remained here were detained by the Japanese at Changi Prison and then in Sime Road.

The community has contributed significantly to Singapore, and its members include first chief minister David Marshall, who helped establish what is today the Jewish Welfare Board.

Other prominent figures include philanthropist Jacob Ballas, the first chairman of the Malayan Stock Exchange and then the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange; prominent surgeon Yahya Cohen; and lawyer Harry Elias, who set up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.

Jewish leaders have been active in the Inter-Religious Organisation and other religious harmony efforts, and the Jewish Welfare Board said yesterday that the community has always felt safe in Singapore, unlike in many other countries.

Hariz Baharudin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2021, with the headline 'Singapore Jewish community has deep roots stretching back to 1819'. Subscribe