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In 2003 I took part in my first Norwood Challenge Bike Ride. Since then I have participated in a further 14 rides, most recently this year in late October and early November in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
I do not go to synagogue regularly. My attendances are usually limited to high holy days, weddings and the occasional bar mitzvah. That said, without exception, on each of the Norwood rides I have, with the other riders attended a Friday night service. Sometimes the service is conducted in a room in the hotel where we are staying but more often than not it is a synagogue. Over the last 14 years Friday night service usually conducted by one of the bike riders it has been celebrated in such places as the 500 year old Paradesi synagogue in Cochin (the oldest synagogue in the commonwealth, Cape Town and now, most recently, in Myanmar.
On Friday 4th November 2016, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon formerly Rangun was specially opened up for the Norwood bike riders so that a Friday night service could be celebrated in the Synagogue.
The Musmeah Yeshua synagogue stands in a small street in the heart of the old city of Yangon. At one time the synagogue was a mere wooden building erected as long ago as 1854. The old wooden structure was replaced with the current stone building in about 1893.
Today there are barely 20 Jewish people living in Myanmar. Before the Second World War the Jewish population was about 2,500. Many left following the Japanese occupation and more followed after the Burmese Army seized power in 1962.
For generations the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue has been looked after by the Samuels family. Moses Samuels was the last caretaker. He looked after the synagogue for over 35 years. He inherited the task from his father and grandfather. I am told that Moses’ son Sammy and his two sisters Dina and Kazanh have continued in their father’s tradition. When we celebrated the Friday night service on the 4th November last, we were greeted by Dina and Kazanh. Sadly Moses Samuels died in May of this year after battling cancer for several years. He was 65 years of age.
During the course of the service, the doors of the synagogue were left open. Several tourists, attracted by the music coming from within the synagogue, ventured in. One young Irish lady who came from Dublin and was touring Myanmar was particularly interested in the service and asked me to explain to her what was taking place. I did my best. Her arrival coincided with the Adon Olam traditionally the last song sung at the conclusion of the service. To my surprise she told me that the music sounded familiar. She explained that she had heard the same tune sung on a visit to the Jewish Museum in Dublin. On a recent visit to Dublin I too had visited the Museum which also houses a Synagogue.
In March of this year, together with some friends (some of whom were also on the bike ride), I spent a few days in the city of Thessaloniki also known as Salonica. There were many synagogues in Salonica and at one time a thriving Jewish community. My wife Carolyn recently wrote an article for your magazine about one of last functioning synagogues in Salonica. During the Second World War the Germans occupied Greece in 1941. They started persecuting the Jews as they had in other parts of Europe. By 1943 they had forced the Jews of Salonica into a ghetto and subsequently started deporting them to concentration camps. Nearly 60,000 Jewish people were deported and died. The tragedy still haunts the city of Salonica.
There are no ghosts that haunt the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in downtown Yangon, unlike the synagogues of Salonica, only fading memories. The holocaust did not extend as far as Yangon in Myanmar. Nevertheless, in its own way the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue has its own sad story to tell. It is not governments or wars that have brought about the demise of this once thriving synagogue and community. It is the decline of the Jewish population. Emigration to Israel and America has continued and I am informed that some of the last families may follow, along with the remaining members of the Samuels family. The future of the synagogue in Yangon is uncertain. Money alone will not preserve the synagogues scattered across the globe some of which I have visited on the Norwood bike rides.
As I left the synagogue, I was invited to look at a series of photographs taken of the synagogue over the last 100 years. Amongst the pictures on display were photographs of various Israeli dignitaries including Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, David Ben Gurion who had visited and prayed in the synagogue. They are all gone now.
It must have been a long time ago when Dina and Kaznah last celebrated a Friday night service in the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue, with so many people present. My guess is that it must have been some time before the Japanese invaded all those years ago.
I have not tried in this short article to inundate you with facts and figures as these are readily available on the numerous websites that exist.
For me, and I imagine my fellow bike riders, to spend an hour or so in the company of your friends in a synagogue many thousands of miles away from your home, celebrating your heritage is something very special and rewarding.
Before closing, one final thought. The brain child behind the Norwood Bike Rides is a man called Gordon Fox. He may be known to some of you. Gordon has participated in many Norwood Bike Rides and attended many Friday night services in synagogues around the world. He was once asked which was the most memorable. His answer was a little surprising. He said it was not in a synagogue. One of the bike rides included cycling through the Sinai desert. Well before dawn Gordon and a group of cyclists climbed up Mount Sinai carrying with them a sifrei tora. As the sun rose over the Sinai desert, Gordon holding the sifrei tora, recited part of the morning blessing. He describes it as one of the most moving experiences of his life.
In November 2016, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon formerly Rangun was specially opened up for the Norwood bike riders so that a Friday night service could be celebrated in the Synagogue.