19 July 2008

The future: Shrinking Jewish communities

MyJewishLearning.com offers an article on the shrinking Jewish diaspora in older communities by Jordanna Birnbaum.

She includes Burma (Myanmar), India, Argentina, Brazil and Ireland with story links to Haaretz, Ynetnews, Jewish Week and The Forward, although she focuses on a JTA story about the Samuels family in Myanmar.

Recently I heard Sammy Samuels, one of 20 Jews in left Myanmar speak about his homeland and how he made a difference. In early May, a cyclone ravaged Myanmar killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Samuels was in New York at the time of the cyclone and couldn’t get in touch with any of his family or friends. He was one of the few people able to reenter Myanmar due to its military regime’s impositions. He had raised thousands of dollars in just two days and returned with relief supplies, water tablets and hope.

The JTA interviewed Samuels who has a unique family history:

The Samuels family moved to Burma about 80 years ago from Iraq to pursue business interests in the rice and teakwood trade. At that time, its Jewish community numbered in the thousands. Most fled to Japan during World War II and the rest left when the military seized power in 1962 and nationalized many businesses. (The military changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and Rangoon to Yangon in 1989.)

The Samuels family stayed and watched as the community dwindled to about 20. Four are his family - his father, Moses; his mother, Nelly; and his two sisters, Kazna, 29, and Dina, 31.
The family cares for the synagogue and cemetery.

After hearing Samuels speak, I asked if he planned to stay there long term. Samuels replied gently saying that he loved his country and he wanted to help support the Jewish community their. He spoke fondly of his heritage but also stated the obvious issues with living in a country with 20 Jews.
Birnbaum goes on to discuss a growing issue in the Jewish world, as more and more Jews leave older communities - either for political or economic reasons.

As we become aware of the Jewish presence in remote locations the balance of preserving heritage and community will remain a challenge. Should we leave behind synagogues of the past to create a more cohesive Jewish community?
A thought to ponder as we wonder what will become of family history resources in communities lacking the manpower to preserve and study essential documents and archives.

Do read the complete article for all the links and background stories.

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