A street in Singapore that I have long been familiar with from my many encounters with it throughout my childhood and my days going to school in the area is Waterloo Street. Well-known back in the 1970s for the ‘sarabat stalls’ – a row of food stalls which was a destination for not just good teh sarabat (ginger tea), but also where some of the best Indian rojak in Singapore was to be found, Waterloo Street was also where many rather stately looking buildings could be found – particularly along the stretch that is directly opposite the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum) which I attended. One which did stand out – was a white building with blue windows and a blue Star of David which we referred to as the synagogue, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
The synagogue was always a place that seemed mysterious to me, and one that has remained a mystery until very recently when I had an opportunity to see its insides through a Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) Monument Open House walking tour. Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates as “Shield of our Fathers”, one of two Jewish houses of worship found in Singapore (the other being the Chesed-El), is the oldest existing synagogue not only in Singapore, but also in South-East Asia. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1998, the synagogue provides a link not just to a small but historically significant ethno-religious community in Singapore, but also to the trade motivated diaspora of Baghdadi Jews which saw the arrival from India of the first members of the community in Singapore in the 1830s.
The Maghain Aboth wasn’t the first synagogue in Singapore. The first was one that was housed in a shophouse. Established in 1841, it was to give Synagogue Street its name and served the community until the 1870s. The limited to its capacity coupled with a fast growing Jewish population in Singapore required a larger building than the shophouse which house a congregation of forty. The land at Waterloo Street (which until 1858 had been known as Church Street) on which the present synagogue, the Maghain Aboth stands, was secured in the 1870s by Sir Manasseh Meyer (who later also built the Chesed-El as a private synagogue) and the Maghain Aboth was built. The synagogue designed in the neo-classical style was completed in 1878 with several extensions added over its 134 years, including a second level seating gallery to allow women to worship. It was close to the synagogue that a larger community of Baghdadi Jews began to settle around – giving rise to the Jewish quarter around the nearby Middle Road and Selegie Road area that came to be known as the Mahallah.
The layout of the synagogue is very similar to but is much less elaborated decorated than the Chesed-El. The centre of the hall which faces Jerusalem features a bimah, a raised wooden pulpit where the rabbi leads prayers and reads from Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) during services. At the west end of the hall, the most sacred part of the synagogue, the the ahel or ark is arranged. The ark is where the Torah scrolls are kept, covered by a parochet or curtain.
A more recent extension to the compound on which the synagogue stands is where the stained glass fronted Jacob Ballas Centre now towers over the Maghain Aboth. Built as a community centre, the Jacob Ballas Centre is named after a very successful stock broker, the late Jacob Ballas, who was a prominent member of the community. The centre houses function rooms, offices and accommodation for the rabbis, a kosher slaughter room for fresh chicken, a kosher restaurant as well as a kosher shop. For more information on the Maghain Aboth and the Jacob Ballas Centre, do visit the links below.
Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Maghain Aboth 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)
Maghain Aboth (on infopedia)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Maghain Aboth Synagogue (on PMB’s website)
More views around the Maghain Aboth