(lubavitch.com) At least 100 community representatives from districts and faiths across Singapore participated in a government sponsored seminar on the fundamentals of Judaism and Jewish practice presented by the local Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and rabbinical students.
While years of large waves of immigration have made it a diverse, multi-religious country, Singapore enjoys a reputation for unity. It’s a feat many credit to the government’s strong promotion of tolerance via programs like the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) which provides platforms for races, religions and regions to interact in order to build confidence, friendship, and trust.
Typically found touring and dialoging in temples and mosques, this group of IRCC participants found themselves in Singapore’s synagogue, face-to-face with 20-year-old rabbinical student, Yosi Gurevich, and full of questions.
“As the only Jewish center in the country, we get a lot of non-Jewish visitors, but not like this group,” Gurevich told Lubavitch.com. “We toured the facilities and I took them through a power point presentation on the basics of Judaism. The questions and answers session was intense. They were a very educated group and deeply interested in understanding Judaism.”
Gurevich, in Singapore for the year with three other American rabbinical students to help the country’s full time Chabad representative, Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, said the exchange was “very warm and respectful”, touching on a wide range of subjects, from the nature of the soul and the purpose of creation, to the Jewish perspective on other religions.
“It was inspiring to see their passion for learning about other religions and cultures. It ended after close to two hours, but easily could have kept going.”
The IRCC was first formed in 2002 in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in America, and the December 2001 arrest of 15 local terrorists planning to bomb diplomatic missions and attack foreign nationals based in Singapore. According to the agency’s charter, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the program, “to grow the common space and deepen inter-racial understanding.”
One participant, Albert Lee is a practicing Buddhist, which is also the country’s most widely followed tradition. A sales manager from the Central Singapore District, he told Lubavitch.com that the visit was both “unique” and an “eye opener”.
“I knew very little about Jews, except what’s in the media. It was a very informative glimpse into the culture and beliefs, and gave me a better understanding. I was surprised to even discover some similarities and I hope to learn more.”
Lee said he enjoys his participation in the IRCC and believes “clearing away doubts” is helping to create a “sense of social cohesion” in his local community and in Singapore at large.
“These visits are a great educational opportunity and a real privilege.”
Chabad emissary and spiritual leader of the Jewish community, Rabbi Abergel has been reaching out to Singapore’s 1000 Jews and meeting similar groups since he arrived in 1994. Tolerance and inter-communal dialogue is part of the culture, he said. “Singapore is so open when comes to religions. There is no racism or anti-Semitism, and people are very interested in all other religions. As a rabbi, I’m especially happy because it creates a very supportive environment for Judaism to thrive.”
And it has.
The once struggling Jewish community, overseen by the annually elected Jewish Welfare Board, has grown under Abergel’s watch. It now features a kindergarten and day school, adult learning center, two ritual immersion baths, kosher restaurant, old age home, rabbinical ordination program, Hebrew school, and Jewish burial society.
The Maghain Aboth synagogue, founded in 1878, is full during the week with regular services, and hosts over 100 congregants on Shabbat.
The Jewish community in Singapore, a major world financial hub, the expanding Jewish community has attracted a large number of ex-patriots from across the globe, as well as businessmen and their families relocated to the area for work reasons. At the community’s core, are Sephardic Jews originally from Iraq whose families have lived in Singapore for more than 100 years.
The first Jews to settle in Singapore were traders of Baghdadi origin who migrated to Singapore in 1819 when the Sultan of Johore permitted Sir Stamford Raffles to establish a trading post. When the wealthy Sephardic Sassoon family established business interests in Singapore in 1840, the Jewish population increased and the area solidified into a highly successful trade center called Change Alley.
Even today, Singapore’s development features a strong Jewish imprint.
In 2004, it was revealed that the Singaporean army, considered one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, was initially set up by Israel. Invited by Singapore's founding father and prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1965, an Israeli military delegation headed by Major General Ya'akov Elazari arrived under a veil of secrecy and built the foundations for a modern army.
Says Rabbi Abergel, the Jewish community continues to impact Singapore society by modeling unity and collaboration, and participating in the country’s efforts to promote tolerance and acceptance.
“They take diversity so seriously here, and we represent Judaism. People are watching us, they’re observing the tremendous growth that is happening and seeking to learn things to apply in their own communities.”