Maghain Aboth Synagogue

Singapore Infopedia


The Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which translates to mean “Shield of our Fathers”, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia.1 Situated at 24/26 Waterloo Street, the synagogue was built in 1878 and gazetted as a national monument on 27 February 1998.2 It is managed by the Jewish Welfare Board.3

In September 1841, the colonial government leased a plot of land to the Jewish community at a nominal fee for the construction of a synagogue. This was to be the community’s first synagogue. The land, measuring  503.07 sq m, was located in the early Jewish quarters near Raffles Place, where Synagogue Street is today.4

The lease was enshrined in the Jewish Synagogue Ordinance and commenced on 1 September 1841. The three men who negotiated the lease, Joseph Dewk Cohen, Nassim Joseph Ezra and Ezra Ezra Ezekiel, were named in the ordinance as the synagogue’s trustees.5

A two-storey shop house was built to accommodate the synagogue, which began with a congregation of about 40 and served the local Jewish population for 30 years until the shop house was sold.6 This building was demolished after World War II.

By 1870, the Jewish population had grown significantly and many were living further away from the synagogue. The leaders of the community thus saw the need to build a new synagogue;7 the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built to meet this need.

In 1870, one of the synagogue’s new trustees, Joseph Joshua, negotiated to pay $4,000 for a piece of land owned by the Raffles Institution at Bras Basah for the construction of a new synagogue. However, the agreement required the synagogue to be built within three years. Because the funds for the building project could not be raised in time, the agreement lapsed.8

It was only when Joshua’s nephew Manasseh Meyer, also one of the trustees, returned to Singapore in 1873 that the current site for the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was acquired.9 Meyer, who had been in India for eight years, approached then Attorney-General Thomas Braddell, upon his return, for permission to sell the old synagogue shophouse at Synagogue Street and build a new synagogue. The government approved his request and granted a plot of land at Waterloo Street (then known as Church Street) for the new synagogue.10

On 4 April 1878, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was consecrated. According to official sources, the service could have been conducted by one of two men, Lucunas or I. J. Hayeem, or both of them.11 Extensions were added to the building in 1924.12 The synagogue has been restored over the years, and a new addition to the compound, the seven-storey Jacob Ballas Centre, was built in 2007. Named after Jacob Ballas, a successful stockbroker and well-known philanthropist of the Jewish community, the centre houses offices and apartments, a women’s mikvah (“ritual bath”), a slaughtering room for kosher chickens, a restaurant, a kosher shop, and a social hall for events and functions.13

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), the synagogue remained an important meeting place, where the local Jews exchanged news and collected funds to help those in need.14

The word “synagogue” is derived from the Greek word synagein which means “to bring together”. The synagogue plays an important role in Jewish way of life as a religious, educational, charitable and social centre. It is used for Jewish congregational worship, prayer and scripture study, community gatherings as well as commemorations and celebrations.15

The Maghain Aboth Synagogue sits within a tree-shaded compound measuring 2,290.6 sq m. Here, a sunk-in well for the mikvah can be found.16 The synagogue, with its palladian arcades and pedestals and arched doorways, is a simple, symmetrical building designed in the Neoclassical architectural style. Three blue Stars of David, together with a Hebrew inscription of the name Maghain Aboth on the façade of this two-storey cream-coloured building, set it apart from others in the vicinity.17

The covered porch that extends from the front of the building has an entrance arch large enough for horse carriages to pass through.18 From the front porch, a wide flight of steps leads up to the three wide doors at the main entrance.19 There are two separate entrances for women. Inside, the prayer hall features a high triple-volume ceiling, traditional columns, and rusticated walls that do not bear any decorations or images (Judaism expressly prohibits icons of god or the prophets). In the centre of the hall lies the bimah, a raised pulpit where prayers by the rabbi and readings from the Torah (“scrolls of the law”) take place during services.20 The synagogue originally had only one storey; in 1893, a U-shaped second-storey balcony was added to accommodate women.21

The prayer hall is orientated west towards Jerusalem. The bimah faces the ahel or “ark”, which is situated in a niche on an elevated area at the west wall of the hall. The ahel is an alcove where the Torah is stored and is normally covered by the parochet, a fringed curtain with detailed embroidery. Hanging before the ahel is the eternal lamp, a symbol of the eternal flame that burned in what was once the Temple of Jerusalem. Sometimes a menorah or “seven-branched candle stand” would also be placed here, as a symbol of the state of Israel.22

In the past, gas lighting and oil lamps provided illumination during services. The oil lamps, which were merely wicks placed in glass bowls filled with oil, still hang suspended from steel rods today, mainly in remembrance of those who died in the past year.23 Electric lamps attached to the ceiling and columns now provide the needed lighting.

Services and events
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue serves as the venue for Jewish religious festivals and community life.24 It is open all year round and holds thrice-daily services.25 In the early days, aliyoth or “privileges” were given to certain members of the congregation, and during services, the aliyoth would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going towards the maintenance of the synagogue.26

In 2006, the synagogue was one of the religious sites used as an exhibition venue during the inaugural Singapore Biennale.27

In 2012, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was one of 32 historical buildings in Singapore showcased in an exhibition organised by the Preservation of Monuments Board (now known as Preservation of Sites and Monuments). The buildings served as the backdrop for a set of wedding photographs, taken from the 1960s to the present, for about 150 pairs of newlyweds.28

During the 13th edition of the Singapore HeritageFest held from April to May 2016, participants could sign up for a tour of the synagogue to find out more about its  architectural style.29 At the World Cities Summit held in Singapore in July 2016, visitors “explored” the interior of this synagogue using 3D glasses at a travelling exhibition called “In Sight”.30


Bonny Tan & Valerie Chew

1. “Buildings That Tell a Story,” Straits Times, 2 March 1998, 31; Malini Nathan, “Spiritual in Singapore,” Straits Times, 2 June 2009, 72. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Eze Nathan, The History of Jews in Singapore, 1830–1945 (Singapore: HERBILU Editorial & Marketing Services, 1986), 11–12 (Call no. RSING 301.45192405957 NAT); Urban Redevelopment Authority for Preservation of Monuments Board, Maghain Aboth Synagogue Preservation Guidelines, vol. 1 (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1999), 4. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 MAG)
3. “Maghain Aboth Synagogue,” National Heritage Board, accessed 27 August 2016.
4. Jewish Synagogue Ordinance 1878, The Statutes of the Republic of Singapore, rev. ed. 2020; Edmund Lim W. K. and Kho Ee Moi, The Chesed-El Synagogue: Its History & People (Singapore: Trustees of Chesed-El Synagogue, 2005), 15. (Call no. RSING 296.095957 LIM)
5. Jewish Synagogue Ordinance 1878.
6. Lim and Kho, Chesed-El Synagogue, 16; Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 11–12.
7. Urban Redevelopment Authority for Preservation of Monuments Board, Maghain Aboth Synagogue Preservation Guidelines, 17.
8. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 274. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
9. Lim and Kho, Chesed-El Synagogue, 17.
10. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 11.
11. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 13.
12. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002), 102. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
13. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 128 (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS]); “History,” Singapore Jews, accessed 27 August 2016.
14. Urban Redevelopment Authority for Preservation of Monuments Board, Maghain Aboth Synagogue Preservation Guidelines, 5.
15. Lim and Kho, Chesed-El Synagogue, 15.
16. Urban Redevelopment Authority for Preservation of Monuments Board, Maghain Aboth Synagogue Preservation Guidelines, 4–5, 18.
17. “Buildings That Tell a Story”; “A Shield for the Jewish Community,” Straits Times, 30 November 1996, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Urban Redevelopment Authority for Preservation of Monuments Board, Maghain Aboth Synagogue Preservation Guidelines, 4–5, 18.
19. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 12.
20. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 104.
21. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2007), 129. (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
22. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 104.
23. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 104.
24. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 128.
25. Singapore Jews, “History.”
26. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 37.
27. “Singapore Biennale 2006,” Straits Times, 6 September 2006, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Goh Shi Ting, “Streetview: Landmarks Make for Monumental Wedding Photos,” Straits Times, 31 August 2012, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Melody Zaccheus, “The ST Guide to… Singapore HeritageFest 2016,” Straits Times, 22 April 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
30. Cheryl Teh, “World Cities Summit to Explore Creative Place-Making,” Straits Times, 10 July 2016, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resource
Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 49–51. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as of 29 August 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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