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History of the UHC of Singapore

The United Hebrew Congregation (Singapore) is the largest practicing Jewish community in Singapore. We are affiliated with The World Union for Progressive Judaism (Reform), but our principally expatriate membership spans the global Jewish diaspora and members represent many nationalities and religious backgrounds, including Reform, Conservative, Progressive and Reconstructionist. We are an inclusive community and our membership, while predominantly young families, also consists of couples, single members, and empty nesters. A number of our congregants are in mixed marriages and partnerships and we encourage everyone to participate in our congregation.

Since the early days of the then British settlement, Jews were working, trading and visiting Singapore. 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, primarily from Baghdad and some other parts of the Middle East. The original Jewish community is mainly comprised of Sephardim Orthodox Jews who worship and gather at two Orthodox synagogues in Singapore, one of which was built by Sir Manasseh Meyer early last century and has been designated a national historical building. Both synagogues and the local community are run by the Jewish Welfare Board. Singapore also has a large Israeli expatriate community and an active Israeli embassy which hosts Jewish events and promotes Israeli businesses.

The UHC was founded to support the growing progressive community in Singapore. In 1991, a small group of expatriate Jews living in Singapore started to gather to pray and celebrate holidays. They were mostly English-speaking Ashkenazim. The group got its start when two pioneering Americans, Natalie Barkan and Sandy Lessig, began to organize a few simple functions, a Yom Kippur break-fast for 60 people, and then increasing numbers of Shabbat dinners and occasional services, holiday celebrations, children's activities and religious classes, High Holiday services, adult education sessions, and Passover Seders. All of this continues today. More than 25 years on, our congregation continues to go from strength to strength!

The following are several key events in our history:

  • In 1992, the UHC ran our first High Holiday services, conducted without the benefit of clergy. The following year we contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and asked if they could find a rabbi who would be willing to come to Singapore for the High Holy days. This turned out to be a significant turning point in the formation of our congregation. In 1993, Rabbi Lennard Thal, (then the Regional Director of the Pacific Southwest Council and later Senior Vice President of the URJ) agreed to come to Singapore 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 community’s needs. Rabbi and Linda Thal nurtured our nascent community and helped us to grow over their 20 years of service to the UHC. Lenny and Linda came annually for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, and Pesach and brought many wonderful cantors with them over the years, including (now) Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Soloist Peri Smilow, and, for a decade, Cantor Susan Caro, a widely-known and respected cantor, a national leader in the US Reform Movement, and President of the American Conference of Cantors.
  • The United Hebrew Congregation (Singapore) received government approval in 1995 becoming the third Progressive congregation to be formed in Asia, after Rodef Shalom in Bombay and the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong.
  • In 2012, in preparation for Rabbi Thal’s retirement, the UHC Board raised a substantial Community Development Fund to enable the community to hire our first resident Rabbi. Rabbi, Nathan Alfred arrived in Singapore in January 2015 and has been integral to our growth and sustainability. Rabbi Nathan has been instrumental in increasing the number of regular minyan to weekly, establishing the UHC Sunday Hebrew School and increasing student enrollment, creating a regular stable of adult education programs, and solidifying the common liturgy for the community. His warmth and demeanour have also contributed to our new membership efforts and his energy has infected nearly every aspect of UHC programming and participation. Rabbi Nathan has also established a culture of outreach within the community. Many members have joined him for local religious and cultural events promoted by other congregations as well as the Israeli embassy in Singapore. We have also participated in visits with other religious and faith leadership, conferences, and regional community visits. Under Rabbi Nathan’s leadership, the UHC Singapore has developed a reputation for being one of the strongest, most committed, inclusive, and progressive communities in South, South East and North Asia.
  • In September, 2019, Rabbi Nathan announced that he will serve our congregation until the summer of 2020 when he will join his wife and infant son in Israel. The UHC Board authorized the creation of a Search Committee to find his successor and celebrate the tenure and contributions of Rabbi Nathan to our community.

Despite a resident Rabbi, a permanent office and an executive assistant, the UHC remains a volunteer-led organization. We don’t have a shul, but this has never held us back! We have established a stable of venues for our monthly community Shabbatot and festivals and a number of community members open their homes for smaller gatherings. We meet every Thursday for a weekly minyan and we have multiple religious, educational, and social events each month. We have all of the accoutrements and activities of an established progressive congregation built up over 25 years. We have two Sifrei Torahs and an ark that is transported to venues as required, the latest High Holiday and Shabbat prayer books, a Gabbai Committee that maintains our high-standards regarding ritual and practice, a Shabbat and Festivals Committee that manages logistics, and a Music Coordinator who has established and continues to evolve our musical haggadot accompaniments while himself performing with a roster of musicians and guest soloists to enhance our community events.

What we have always valued and what underpins our community is the generous donation of our members’ time and treasure. We have and continue to manage year-on-year through our members' generosity – making things work through our volunteer efforts, dues, and donations. Annual membership dues cover the majority of our fixed costs, but donations are necessary for the sustainability of our congregation in the absence of an endowment fund. Our Board has always endeavoured to balance our fiscal responsibilities with the need to continue to evolve and enhance our programming. Our Membership and Fundraising Committees work creatively to increase our enrollment and sponsorship without impacting the quality of our programming and our community’s overall attractiveness to new members.

Looking forward, as Asia becomes increasingly important to our world, we expect Jews – including Progressive Jews - will continue to be at the forefront of life in Singapore. It is our intention to continue to be a warm and welcoming community, catering to and supporting progressing Jewish life so that our wonderful congregation will continue to grow from strength to strength.

Wed, 11 December 2019 13 Kislev 5780