‘We Were Among the Last Jewish Communities That Could Still Have a Minyan’

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A man using his laptop at an empty restaurant in Marina Bay, Singapore, on April 2, 2020, as the government slowly tightens restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
A man using his laptop at an empty restaurant in Marina Bay, Singapore, on April 2, 2020, as the government slowly tightens restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus.Credit: AFP

In Singapore’s white-and-gold-pillared Chessed-El Synagogue, not far from the famed Orchard Road shopping hub, men enter the shul one by one, each having their temperature taken at the door. When a group of 10 have assembled, they begin to pray, standing at least 2 meters apart.

“Whoever wants to come down and pray – if it happens that we can have 10 men together, we will gather and pray,” Chessed-El’s rabbi, Asher Fettmann, told Haaretz in a phone interview last Thursday, just hours before the government would impose new regulations banning such gatherings.

Now, Chessed-El has closed its doors for the first time since the synagogue was completed in 1905. The coronavirus has succeeded where SARS failed, after the shul stayed open during the earlier epidemic in 2003 that affected Singapore and 25 other countries.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced in late March that all religious institutions and services were being suspended until April 30 due to the outbreak. But until the new set of regulations was issued last Friday, the government had allowed places of worship to remain open to individuals as long as they were restricted to gatherings of 10 or fewer and practiced social distancing. Now that will only return when the COVID-19 threat fades here.

Chabad Rabbi Netanel Rivni, who has been working at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue since 2006, said it was important that the synagogues remained open as long as they did. “Especially during this time, people are looking upon the religious centers as a source of strength,” he said.

Jews gathering on the evening of Yom Kippur and pray outside Singapore's Maghain Aboth Synagogue in 2008. Credit: DESMOND LIM / SINGAPORE PRESS HO

For Yaniv Uliel, going to a prayer group had provided him with a sense of normalcy. “We felt very lucky we were among the few last Jewish communities that could still have a minyan,” he said.

Israeli-born Uliel moved to Singapore in 2008 and co-founded an investment management firm. He and his wife, Michele, are active members of Maghain Aboth, attending weekly services and courses. Although for Uliel the minyans were awkward, given the strangeness of standing so far apart and the fact that the Torah was not being read from the bimah, he remained thankful that the rabbis were able to find a solution as long as they were able to.

Switching to Zoom

Although Singapore was one of the first countries to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its first case reported on January 23, the small nation-state was able to successfully keep a lid on the virus without going into lockdown. Now, though, the southeast Asian island is grappling with a second wave of cases – mostly of nationals returning from overseas – and the government has ramped up measures, ordering school and workplace closures for the first time since the crisis began.

As of Sunday, Singapore has 1,309 confirmed cases and suffered six deaths due to the coronavirus.

Singapore’s Jewish community numbers somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000, with many of its members descendants of Iraqi traders during the British colonial era. Baghdadi traders settled on the small island between the 18th and 19th centuries, building the state’s first synagogue in 1841. From early on, the former British colony had a flourishing Jewish community and now boasts four synagogues and a Jewish school – all Orthodox.

Both Fettmann and Rivni said their synagogues started taking precautions before the government enforced its stricter regulations. “At Purim [in March], we were still allowed 250 people – it was before the new rule – but still we went live on Zoom for people who wanted to stay at home,” Rivni recounted.

Maghain Aboth’s Thursday night Torah and whiskey courses had also been conducted on Zoom for the past two weeks.

A woman wearing a face mask as she walks next to a store in a shopping district on Orchard Road, Singapore, April 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

“Zoom has become the de facto means of communication for the rabbi and all of us – the prayer groups and davrei torahs,” said Maghain Aboth congregant Ben Benjamin. He is also vice president of Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organization.

Benjamin is one of about 40 who continues to participate in lessons with Singapore’s chief rabbi, Mordechai Abergel, over Zoom. In addition, Abergel releases a weekly Shabbat Shiur on Facebook.

At Maghain Aboth, the oldest synagogue in southeast Asia, professionals have been coming in regularly to sanitize the colonial-style building since the start of the outbreak.

According to Rivni, even before the new restrictions were introduced, each congregant would have their temperature taken at the door in addition to signing a declaration that they had not traveled recently and were not experiencing any virus-related symptoms. “It’s not only the Jewish community but also the entire Singaporean community: they are following the instructions before they were given,” Rivni said.

“It’s not like some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who still don’t understand what the government is requiring and what is better for each of us. It’s a question of pikuach nefesh, of life and death,” Fettmann said. “In Asia, people are very obedient and they respect the law more than any other country. So when the government says to stay home or not to gather more than 10 people, we respect it.”

Memories of 2003

Singapore’s approach has largely been shaped by the SARS outbreak, which saw 238 cases and 33 deaths on the island. Since then, the country has been gearing up for another epidemic, building designated clinics for outbreaks. When COVID-19 first arrived in January, the authorities acted quickly to track down and test suspected cases, even hiring detectives to trace the chain of transmission.

People walking past the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, where patients suffering from the coronavirus are being cared for, in Singapore, April 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

While Rivni said there had been only one known case of COVID-19 in the Jewish community, the significant number of expat congregants poses an extra challenge at Passover.

“The nature of our community is that there are plenty of expats who don’t have family in Singapore … so the friendship is no longer just friends that you meet in the synagogue, or in the kosher shop, or in school – it becomes much more than that,” Rivni said.

As Singapore becomes an even greater global commercial hub, attracting foreigners from all over the world, the number of expats has expanded in the Jewish community. Rivni and Fettman had both been busy making arrangements for those without families to be hosted at gatherings, as they do for every holiday, until the stricter round of regulations kicked in last week. Now they are making last-minute changes to deliver seder meals to congregants.

For Uliel and his wife, this will be the first year in which they celebrate Passover alone. “I’ve never celebrated Passover like this … but it’s also an opportunity to convene within ourselves, and find the energies in the house and create happiness and still experience seder,” Uliel said.

“I think this month will be the darkest hour,” he added, “but this is temporary and we are strong.”

When it comes to using video conferencing, Singapore’s chief rabbi has ruled against using it during the seder – despite a group of Sephardi rabbis in Israel issuing a halakhic ruling last month that it was OK to use Zoom.

“We encourage people to do Zoom conversations with their grandparents before Passover starts,” Rivni said. “They can do it an hour or two before, they can spend time with them, l’chaim, and when the time comes to light the candles, they shouldn’t carry on with the Zoom.”

Despite the recent tightening of restrictions, for now many in the Jewish community don’t seem overly concerned about their own situation.

“Compared to what we can see and read in the news, we are very lucky, because we can see the country is still somehow operating,” Fettmann said.

When asked about Jewish communities around the world that have experienced higher concentrations of cases – notably in the United States, Great Britain and Israel – Rivni explained: “Because our community is mostly expats, we feel it much more. A lot of us have relatives and parents and a community in other areas, so we do feel the pain and the confusion, and we do have the stress of the rest of the Jewish world.”

Uliel’s wife phones her mother in Brooklyn several times a day to make sure she’s not leaving the house and is sanitizing every delivery that arrives. “She’s not young and her immune system is not so good, so it’s been stressful,” Uliel said of his mother-in-law. As for Uliel, he also calls his own family in Israel as much as possible. “I’m very optimistic that we will overcome this,” he said.

“All of us have families all over the place – in America, in Israel – and we’re praying from here,” Rivni added.

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