In the center of Yangon, on the corner of MahaBandoola and 26th street, stands the last Myanmar Synagogue. For about 50 years, in the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (photo) religious functions are not celebrated with regularity but the building has become over time an important tourist attraction. Sammy Samuels, leader of the Myanmar Jewish community, took care of it. To help him there are his sister Khana and U Myint Lwin, a local Muslim who is responsible for the maintenance of the building.
In a country where Buddhists account for about 90% of the population, Jews represent the smallest religious group. Nine members of the community live in the nation's economic capital, to which are added about 80 foreign citizens. It is estimated that another 10 Jews live between Mandalay and Pathein.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in 1854 by an Iraqi architect to meet the religious needs of the Jews who reached the then Burma following the British conquest. In the beginning, the synagogue was in wood and around 1890 it was destroyed by fire. Soon after, the building reopened with its current appearance.
The first Burmese Jews were mainly merchants from Iraq and India, belonging to the Jewish groups Baghdadi, Cochin and Benè Israel. Encouraged by the London authorities, they have settled mainly in Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay, where they started a thriving trade in rice and cotton.
Success in business has contributed to the growth of the Burmese Jewish population, which reached its peak in 1940 with about 3 thousand faithful. In the early twentieth century, Jewish mayors ruled both Pathein and Rangoon, where Yawmingyi street, Yoaut street and Boyarnyut street bordered the city's "Jewish Town".
With the Japanese occupation of the country began the decline of the Jewish population. During the Second World War, over 75% of the community left the country. The exodus increased in proportions with the independence of Burma in 1948, as many Burmese Jews could no longer benefit from the British system. The last blow was represented by the military coup of 1962 and the subsequent economic crisis: at the end of the century, the Burmese Jews were less than 50.