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History of the UHC of Singapore

Interestingly, the Local Jewish community has been in Singapore since the early part of the last century and at one point there was quite a large population of Jews in Singapore. Since the early days of the then British settlement, Jews were working trading and visiting Singapore and finally settling on the Island.  They were primarily from Baghdad and some other parts of the Middle East and are mainly Sephardim Orthodox Jews. There are two Orthodox synagogues in Singapore, one of which was built by Sir Manasseh Meyer early last century and is deemed a historical building. Singapore also has quite a large Israeli community and an active Israeli embassy. The third and largest practicing community is the UHC – the United Hebrew Congregation affiliated to The World Union for Progressive Judaism(Reform), but made up of a Jewish Diaspora of many nationalities of Reform, Conservative, Progressive and Reconstructionist backgrounds.

The UHC was founded out of a lack of any existing Progressive community. In 1991, a small group of expatriate Jews living in Singapore started to get together to pray and celebrate. They were mostly English-speaking and most were Ashkenazim. The group got its start when two women, Natalie Barkan and Sandy Lessig, began to organize a few simple functions, then a Yom Kippur break-fast where 60 people appeared out of the woodwork, and then more Shabbat dinners and occasional services, holiday celebrations, children's activities and then religious classes, High Holiday services, adult education sessions, Passover Seders, and the rest is now a 22 year old History!

In 1992 we ran our first High Holiday services, conducting them on our own. The following year we contacted the URJ and asked if they could find a rabbi who would be willing to come to Singapore for the High Holy days for just expenses. This turned out to be one of the most important events in the formation of our congregation. In 1993, Rabbi Lennard Thal, (then the Regional Director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the URJ later became Senior Vice President), agreed to come with his wife Linda (an expert in Jewish education in her own right). Lenny and Linda's superb developmental and educational skills and warm personalities fit perfectly with our needs. They continued to come and help the community to grow for 20 years; they came every Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, and Pesach. For the 10th year and for the next 10 years, Rabbi Thal was joined by Cantor Susan Caro for the HHD, a widely-known and respected cantor and national leader in the Reform Movement in the US and was President of the American Conference of Cantors.

This small progressive community then decided to form our own official society. The United Hebrew Congregation (Singapore) and received government approval in 1995. We became the third Progressive congregation to be formed in Asia, after Rodef Shalom in Bombay and the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong. We still continue to grow and reach out to other communities in the region, and are especially in touch with our friends at the UPJ in Australia.

We are still a volunteer led organization and although at this moment we have no permanent building, we have many of the accoutrements and activities of a Progressive congregation built up over the years. We have two new Torahs generously donated by one of our long standing members in 2012, and we have High Holiday and Shabbat prayer books, haggadot, tallitot and our own inscribed kippot.

In the face of Rabbi Thal’s retirement, we decided in 2012 to formally establish the community’s needs and then to take the first steps (and decision making), to bring the UHC to the next level. Substantial funds were raised through the Community Development Fund initiative to enable the UHC to hire a resident rabbi. Then a hiring process was conducted. Our first resident Rabbi, Nathan Alfred arrived in Singapore in January 2015.

What we always need and have valued most in the past to present day, is willing and capable leaders and volunteers, and enough funds – we continue to be a membership and donation funded organization.  We have and continue to manage year-on-year through our members' generosity – making things work through our volunteer efforts, dues, and donations.

Looking forward, we are witnessing the increasing importance of Asia to our world.  And we expect Jews – including Progressive Jews - will be there participating in the forefront, and with them our congregation will grow from strength to strength.

Mon, 21 October 2019 22 Tishrei 5780