This trip has afforded me a chance to see many great temples. Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, and even Balilnese Hindu. But one thing I like to do when traveling internationally is visit synagogues. I’ve been impressed by what parts of a synagogue are similar to my upbringing, and what parts of the culture are purely local to the area being visited. Because of this I planned to visit Maghain Aboth, the oldest Synagogue in Southeast Asia. Almost no information about visiting the synagogue is available online, and an attempt at contacting the synagogue by phone didn’t go as I’d hoped so I hoped I could just show up. Being Jewish by heritage might afford me an entry.
Knowing that I only had two days on my second visit to Singapore, I found a hotel quite close to the synagogue. After checking in, I walked over with the hope of gaining entry. However, the entire property is surrounded with six foot high black metal gates with small signs attached every few feet saying “No photographs, please.” I could see a security office but could find no officer on duty, and nobody in sight. I left, hopeful that I could do better the next day, in the morning.
The next morning, I went back, found some cars and people inside the gates, and, a security guard on duty! I approached the young Indian man and he asked how he could help.
“Hello. I am visiting Singapore, and I would like to know if I can come inside to see the Synagogue.”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“I see. I just want to look around. I don’t want to take photos.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
Then I pulled out my last card.
“Can I attend Mincha services?”
Mincha services just means “afternoon services.” Jews pray three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening, also known as “Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv.” Many synagogues combine Mincha and Ma’ariv into one service, performing Mincha just prior to sundown, taking a short pause, and performing Ma’ariv, thereby limiting the number of times someone has to leave their business to come to temple.
(For those of you who need pronunciation help, “ch” here sounds like the German “achtung” and not “Manchuria“.)
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m Jewish. I can behave respectfully, I will wear a kipah (the head covering.) I won’t take photos.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I leave tomorrow.”
“Well, it’s my first day. I don’t know. Wait here while I ask my supervisor.”
“Congratulations on your new job!” I said. Every bit of kindness helps.
While waiting a middle-aged man whom I identified as Jewish from the kepah he was wearing, happened to walk out the gate and stopped to speak with me. We had a very nice chat, and he invited me to Mincha / Ma’ariv services (so they combined them into one like most places) at “a quarter to seven.” I was also invited to stay for dinner. I told him I wasn’t particularly observant, which he said did not matter, that I was welcome.
Another security guard came to speak with me, a Chinese man, who took my passport, and asked many of the same questions. While they were checking me out, a young man, whom later I learned came from Virginia to work at the synagogue, spoke with me, asked many of the same questions. It was at that time the schoolchildren arrived.
Twenty children from a Singaporean preparatory school, accompanied by four adults, were there to take a tour of the temple. The children were a mix of the standard Singaporean races (as I have been able to identify), Chinese, English, Indian. The young Jew from the temple told me to just tag along with the students.
Success! I was badged as a visitor and off we went.
The tour guide had also arrived five months ago. I realize now that they probably arrived on, or close, to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I wonder they are taking part in an organized series of year-long internships for visiting students.
We entered the sanctuary together. A small cabinet with spare kipot (kipah, plural) sits at the door. My synagogue at home has hundreds of kipot for visitors. This one has a few. Not just because there are probably very few visitors, but because at this synagogue, everyone knows to bring their own from home.
Because the tour was geared toward nine-year-olds, the tour guide covered very basic things, like the meaning of Kashrut, the importance and observances of Shabbat, the Talit, but while he did that I sat quietly in the sanctuary, admiring the architecture and decorations.
Some facts: The synagogue was built in 1878, and was built by, and for, an Iraqi population of Orthodox Jews, meaning also that they followed Sephardic customs. It is not the first Singaporean synagogue, but it is the oldest. For that history, feel free to read the Wikipedia article.
Whereas in my synagogue, the rabbi typically sat in front, Christian church-style, this synagogue has a separate bimah for the rabbis in the center of the sanctuary. Actually, I say Christian church-style, but this might actually be another distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.
The architecture itself was not all that interesting. The benches were wooden with wicker seats. It was a familiar wicker weave which, if I tried to describe, would make me look like an idiot. And although the bimah was in the center, all seats faced forward to the ark.
The ark is where all the Torahs are stored. I got a brief look inside the beautiful and holy space. It contained maybe twenty torahs. The tour guide assured me that most of them were out of commission; irreplaceable antiques at this point. Another distinction between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is how they actually scroll pages in the torah. Ashkenazic Jews (like me) remove the torah from its cover, nuding the torah itself. Sephardic torahs live inside cases that, when opened, give enough access to read it, allowing the scroll to remain safely inside its silver armor. I assume two of the handles on top can then be used to safely scroll the pages.
Any Orthodox synagogue separates the men from the women. Women pray on the balcony on the second floor, men pray on the first floor. Old and injured are allowed to sit on the first floor, but in the back, and separated from the men by a divider. Some synagogues have what is known as a Shabbat elevator, but I imagine it is difficult to add on an elevator to a structure built in the late 1800s.
There is only one Kosher restaurant in Singapore, and it’s on the synagogue grounds. The synagogue also sports a combination gift shop and kosher food store with some tasteful and pretty gifts.
I separated from the student group, thanked the parents and teachers, and returned to buy a gift from the shop. This also afforded me an opportunity to ask with the woman running the store my remaining question.
“In my childhood Conservative synagogue, they now allow women to read from the Torah and to count toward the Minyan (the minimum number of observers required to pray as a group.) Is that kind of discussion going on here in Singapore?”
Maghain Aboth is an Orthodox synagogue, so separation of men and women will remain. But there is a reform synagogue in Singapore, the United Hebrew Congregation. So if that matters enough to a congregant, then the opportunity is there. Of course, she referred to the group as Reform, but UHC self-identifies as Reform/Liberal/Conservative/Reconstructionist.
Will I return for Mincha/Ma’ariv? Maybe. Probably not. I’ve received several invitations to services in the cities and countries where I’ve visited synagogues. Sometimes, like the Ashkenazic one in Istanbul, was probably desperate for attendees to form a Minyan in the dead middle of summer, as most people were away. I doubt Maghain Aboth has difficulty getting a Minyan together when school is in. All the offers are kind and genuine, and always an honor for me to receive. But oh, my Hebrew is so terrible!