A Jewish Revival: Communities Return to Poland, Sicily and Myanmar
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Cities like Yangon, Oporto, Palermo, Brighton and Kraków are emerging as the new centers of Jewish revival.
By Stephen Starr
The ornate colonial building on a bustling alleyway fits right in with the neighborhood. To enter, visitors don’t need to pass through any security checks or barriers — increasingly commonplace around the world, given rising attacks. The Musmeah Yeshua is the only synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar, and its doors are open, which is a source of pride for the city’s Jews and the majority Buddhist community.
That sense of security hasn’t always been afforded to the Jewish community in Yangon. Back in 1910, the community even boasted the city’s first Jewish mayor. But the Japanese, after their 1941 invasion, suspected Jews of spying for the British and sent some to concentration camps. Many Jews fled then, and most others left when the post-independence government nationalized private businesses in the 1960s. But with the country’s then–military rulers opening Myanmar up to the world seven years ago, at least 80 expat Jews have moved there to help rebuild the country and return it to the international fold while also reinvigorating Yangon’s tiny Jewish community of just about 10 people. The number of these returning Jews, though small, is emblematic of an unlikely pattern emerging across multiple cities.
At a time when Jewish communities from Paris to New York City to Manchester, England, are facing increasing threats, a rebirth is happening in Yangon and a host of other cities — such as Oporto, Portugal; Palermo, Sicily; Brighton, England; and Kraków, Poland — where they had almost disappeared.
Five years ago, the Jewish community was very small. … now there is a great atmosphere. There are a lot of young people.
Jonathan Rideau, a former Parisian Jew who has moved to Oporto
Last year, a small Jewish community of less than 50 people opened Palermo’s first synagogue in 500 years. In Brighton, where the first Jewish families came in the 19th century and where the community’s strength has fallen from around 10,000 people in the 1990s to 5,000 now, efforts are afoot to create a whole new set of religious and community spaces. Kraków’s Jewish community — once 60,000 strong and a quarter of the city’s population — was destroyed during the Holocaust. Only 8 percent survived, and almost all left. But a recent revival, including the establishment of a Jewish Community Center, means the city now has at least 700 Jewish residents. Dublin has seen its Jewish population rise from an estimated 1,000 in 2006 to 1,439, according to the latest census. And in Oporto, a citizenship law that became active in 2015 and that allows descendants of Jews exiled overseas before and during the Portuguese Inquisition to gain citizenship, combined with the city’s growing profile as a great place to live, has seen at least 200 Jews, many from Israel and France, move there in the last five years.
“Five years ago, the Jewish community was very small. It was not possible to do Shabbat service,” says Jonathan Rideau, a Parisian Jew who moved to Oporto following a year spent studying there. “Now, there is a great atmosphere. There are a lot of young people.”
A key reason behind the shift is technology: The internet has allowed people to move and start a new life while continuing to hold down a job, oftentimes by working online, says rabbi Michael Paley, a former scholar-in-residence at the philanthropic organization UJA-Federation of New York. International Jewish tourists are increasingly visiting newer destinations because of terror threats in France and Spain — and leaving an economic footprint that sustains local Jewish communities year-round.
There are also unique factors driving this restoration in each city. In the case of Yangon, it’s a political opening and the resultant inflow of expat Jews — diplomats and aid workers — whose day-to-day dietary and religious needs are fueling the resident community. The local community leader, 35-year-old Sammy Samuels, last year opened the Prime Grill Mediterranean restaurant in Yangon that (though it doesn’t sell kosher food) specializes in Israeli cuisine and serves as the central meeting point for the community on Rosh Hashanah, Passover and other Jewish holidays. The expats, according to Samuels, created this demand.
In Kraków, a donation more than a decade ago by Prince Charles helped establish the city’s Jewish Community Center — the beating heart of the revival — and a $500,000 grant received last year from the Eric and Erica Schwartz Family Foundation, the largest the community has received for more than 20 years, means it’s in a position to continue to expand its mission. A seminar in Palermo brought together the few remaining Jews of Sicily and drove them to launch the synagogue in a disused church oratory.
The community’s revival is finding expression in new institutions emerging in each of these cities. Home to the largest synagogue in southwestern Europe, the recently renovated Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, Oporto has a new Jewish museum and a kosher restaurant and store, and there are plans for a Jewish kindergarten. In Brighton, the community is building a new synagogue, a kosher café, an educational space and a hall to hold events, apart from housing aimed at attracting young families.
The communities know that the revival, still only in its infancy, faces risks. Rebuilding a way of life isn’t cheap. The renovation of the Palermo synagogue requires another $70,000 to $90,000 of funding, and the community is waiting for government permits while at the same time looking for someone with the PR savvy to put together an online funding drive. Then there’s the growing international climate of religious intolerance and extremism, including the rise of the far right in countries as distant as Italy and Myanmar. Jews have faced attacks in Marseilles and Brussels, and some Jewish buildings were firebombed last year in Malmo — cities long seen as safe for the community.
“Of course, all we Europeans are concerned about the increase of anti-Semitism,” says Evelyne Aouate, president of the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies and one of those behind the revival of Palermo’s Jewish community. But the community has so far not experienced any hostility, she says. More and more groups of international Jewish travelers are visiting, Aouate adds.
There’s another reason some of these revived groups feel safe — for the moment, at least — says Samuels. “Because we are such a small community, we are not seen as a threat.”
But the communities may not remain this small for long. Already, Samuels is running a business whose success is linked to the growing interest of the Jewish community in Yangon. Myanmar Shalom, launched in 2006, is tailored to bringing Jewish tourists to the country and employs 28 full-time staffers apart from casual workers across Myanmar. In 2013, the firm reached out globally via email to Jews who had or suspected they had family roots in Myanmar. It eventually brought between 50 and 70 people back to Myanmar to revisit their ancestral land, and Samuels says “thousands” of foreign Jewish tourists used his travel agency to tour Myanmar last year.
“It was a huge success, and we hope to do this more regularly,” Samuels says. Except that the next time around, the firm may not need to plan an outreach. The city’s revived local community could instead serve as its own advertisement.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr