One of the wonderful things about Singapore is the diverse cultural and religious practices, some modified with time, some influenced by the environment, but many that remain distinct reflecting the many lands far and wide from which immigrants to Singapore have arrived from. Besides the myriad of festivals that seem to go on all year around, this diversity is also reflected in its architectural heritage – some 28 of its 64 National Monuments are places of worship which are very much in use today.
Two of the 64 that I had an opportunity to visit during a recent Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) walking tour were the Hong San See Temple and the Chesed-El Synagogue. The Hong San See or Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that I already am familiar with from a previous visit. A magnificent and beautifully restored example of Fujian Lam Ann (Nan’an) religious architecture, its last restoration effort from 2007 to 2009 earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. More information on the temple can be found in my previous post The Temple on Phoenix Hill.
The main motivation for my participation in the tour was more for the opportunity it provided to visit a synagogue as I had never in stepped into one. While there are two such places of worship in Singapore, such opportunities are rare, especially due to more recent security concerns and this provided me with a look of what it was like behind the façade of a religious building belonging to a small and sometimes lesser known local community which has made a significant contribution to Singapore.
The Jews in Singapore have certainly made a huge contribution to its development with many notable names through Singapore’s history, members of the community. One of its prominent members in the early days of Singapore was a certain Sir Manasseh Meyer, a highly successful businessman and property owner, who counted among his properties, the Sea View Hotel and the Adelphi Hotel, lending his name to Meyer Road. It was also Manasseh Meyer who built the Chesed-El, Singapore’s second synagogue (after Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street).
The Chesed-El completed in 1905 on Manasseh Meyer’s sprawling estate in Oxley Rise, Belle Vue, was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of architectural frim Swan & Maclaren (which was responsible for many of the monumental works of architecture in Singapore) in the Palladian style. What had prompted Manasseh Meyer to build Chesed-El, which translates as the “bountiful mercy and goodness of God” were differences of opinions which members of the community from differing backgrounds had at the Maghain Aboth, which was built as a private synagogue.
Besides providing the opportunity to have a look into the synagogue, the visit also allowed a better appreciation of the layout of a synagogue. Placed in a westward facing direction to Judaism’s eternal city, Jerusalem, a wooden pulpit rises at centre of the hall. The pulpit or bimah, is where prayers where the rabbi leads the prayers, and where the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) are placed and read during services.
The visit also allowed us a peek at the upper gallery where the women are kept separated from the men during services. The balconies on the upper gallery feature iron work that we were told were imported from Scotland which provided an appreciation of the effort taken in the building of the house of worship for the greater glory of the Maker.
The highlight of the visit was a close-up look we had at Sefer Torah as well as a look into the holiest part of the synagogue, the ark or ahel – a room where the Sefer Torahs are stored. The sefers or scrolls are made from specially handwritten parchment and are ones donated by members of the congregation, and includes one that is a hundred years old.
The look at the synagogue was one that provided not only an insight into the religious practices of a small but important community in Singapore, but also one which offered a window into the role the many successful immigrants who came from far and wide played in building and supporting their respective communities. It is these communities which have provided the foundation on which Singapore’s success is built and which makes Singapore that wonderful celebration of cultures and religions that it is today.
Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Chesed-El Synagogue:
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on PMB’s website)