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Chesed-El Synagogue, located at Oxley Rise, is one of the two synagogues that are currently in use in Singapore. It was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swan & Maclaren and completed in 1905. Its name, Chesed-El, means “bountiful mercy and goodness of God”. The building was gazetted as a national monument on 18 December 1998.
By the early 1900s, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (the only synagogue then) had become crowded, as the Jewish population in Singapore had more than doubled since the opening of the synagogue in 1878. Some members of the Jewish community thus felt that a second synagogue was needed. At the same time, Manasseh Meyer, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, was troubled by the frequent disagreements among the congregants of different backgrounds over the order of services and specific rituals. This prompted his decision in 1902 to build his own private synagogue.
Meyer decided to build the new synagogue on his residential estate, Belle Vue, located at Oxley Rise. A mikvah or “ritual bath” was sunk into the ground of an existing outhouse in the estate. He also purchased a house near Albert Street from which he conducted services for his family while waiting for the new building to be completed. The synagogue was completed in 1905 and the dedication ceremony took place on 14 April 1905. Meyer himself led the service.
No services were held during World War II (WWII), but the local Jews continued to meet here regularly for support and to exchange news before the Japanese Occupation. During the Occupation, the Japanese military took control of the building to store heavy goods and ammunition and removed several items including the wooden benches. Some of these benches were later found in the Singapore Recreation Club and second-hand furniture shops.
The synagogue was closed at least twice in the mid- to late 1900s for foundation strengthening works. In 2001 and 2002, it underwent major renovation and restoration works, following a mid-2000 building survey commissioned by the synagogue’s trustees. Pre-WWII photographs of the synagogue were scrutinised to ensure accuracy in restoring the building’s exterior and interior to the original state.
The synagogue is designed in the Palladian style characterised by ancient Roman and Greek architectural features such as arches and Corinthian columns. Projecting from the front of the two-storey building is a covered porch that is large enough for a horse carriage to pass through. Immediately to the right of the steps leading up to the main doors is a plaque stating that the synagogue was built by Meyer and designed by Bidwell. To the sides of the covered porch are two entrances to the second-storey women’s gallery which separates the women from the men during services.
Inside the synagogue, there is enough seating for about 300 people. Two rows of towering columns line either side of the main hall. Each column is white except for three rings of gold at intervals along its length and a gold-painted leaf design at the top, where the columns are joined by arches decorated with delicate gold motifs. The walls and the marble flooring are also white. The decorative moulding below the half-moon fanlights just under the ceiling bears the initial ‘M’ for Meyer, as do the metal railings of the upper-storey balcony. This is unlike most synagogues, which do not have symbols or icons in the interior.
The holiest place in any synagogue is the ahel or “ark”, where the Sefer Torahs or “Torah scrolls” are stored. In the Chesed-El Synagogue, the ahel is built on a raised platform directly opposite the entrance. It faces westward towards Jerusalem, and the Hebrew inscription above it translates to: “Lo, in Thine abundant love I enter Thy house; in reverence to Thee I bow towards Thy holy temple”. The ahel has three entrances and each one is covered by a curtain, known as the parochet, embroidered with Hebrew texts and designs. The floor of the platform has retained its original mosaic tiles, but the original railings lining the platform have been replaced with new ones manufactured by the makers of the original set. The eternal lamp hangs in front of the ahel. Always kept lit, it symbolises the perpetual lamp that existed in the former Temple of Jerusalem. There is a special chair near the ahel that has a small plaque inscribed with Meyer’s name – this was where Meyer would sit, surrounded by his family.
In the centre of the synagogue between the ahel and the entrance is the bimah, a raised pulpit where the rabbi leads the prayers during services. The original marble bimah was damaged during World War II and has been replaced with a wooden structure. In the front portion of the synagogue, there are burning oil lamps to remember congregants who passed away during the year.
The synagogue was one of the first buildings in Singapore to use gas lights. These have since been replaced with electric lights; however the metal gas pipes remain, concealed above the ceiling in the prayer hall. Although the synagogue is now fully air-conditioned, the original ceiling fans have also been retained.
The synagogue holds special services during the High Holy Days but normal services are usually conducted only once a week on Monday mornings. In the past, Meyer would pay impoverished men to form the mandatory minyan (the quorum of ten men) so that daily formal prayers could be held, with the Meyer family attending them.
Bonny Tan & Valerie Chew
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(Call no.: RSING 726.095957 LEE)
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(Call no.: RSING 296.095957 LIM)
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(Call no.: RSING 301.45192405957 NAT)
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(Call no.: RSING 305.629605957 SS)
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(Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 RES)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 WAN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 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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