The Shrinking Diaspora

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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. (MORE)

The Samuels family takes care of the beautiful synagogue and the Jewish 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. There is almost never a minyan (except when tourists come), his Jewish friends are his two sisters, and it is very hard to get kosher food. He also spoke fondly of Israel and how he and his sisters both lived their for different periods of time.

But Samuels’ predicament, expresses a growing issue in today’s Jewish world: The polarization of Jewish communities. More and more Jews are leaving their communities, whether because of political unrest, or economic security, older Jewish communities are dwindling. Granted Myanmar is an extreme case, but a similar situation rings true in Argentina, India, Brazil, Ireland, Zimbabwe and many other countries.

In Argentina, the Jewish community is quickly declining due to economic downturns. In 1970 the Jewish community had more than 280,000 people. Today there are less that 160,000 and that number keeps shrinking.

The Indian Jewish community, specifically the Jews from the city of Cochin are down to 17 members as many have moved to Israel.

But what are the issues to be considered in sustaining these Jewish communities in remote places? If we have a superstructure of agencies and thriving communities elsewhere should we try to merge communities such as the one in Myanmar?

In our globalized society we do have the resources to continue to support these communities but many believe our efforts should be focused elsewhere. 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?

Posted on June 30, 2008

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