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Behind the Headlines Jewish Presence in Asia Declining

The ancient Indian Jewish community, its origins dating back 2000 years, and which endowed schools and hospitals and participated in all aspects of Indian life, is almost extinct.

Singapore Jewry, once 4,000 strong, intimately linked with the development of this island state, which in the person of David Marshall gave Singapore its first chief minister, now numbers less than 300 people.

The Jewish presence in Asia, which came in the main with the European trading links centuries ago, is now token if it exists at all. This is partly historical, the result of wars and mass migrations of Europeans out of the region.

MOST OF THE COMMUNITIES APPEAR DOOMED

Whatever the causes, and despite the rebirth of these communities in some areas through the same trade links which formed them in the past, many, if not most, of the Jewish communities in Southeast Asia appear doomed.

Their populations have fallen below the critical mass necessary to ensure their natural continuance. The young Jews are either assimilating, moving to larger Jewish centers like Australia or the United States or making aliya to Israel.

What is left in some communities is a geriatric core, overlaid with a pitifully small number of young to middle-aged, most of whom realize they must move on, or move their children on, to retain any semblance of Jewish identity.

DETERMINATION TO CONTINUE

These developments were reported here on Sunday at the Asia Pacific Jewish Association (APJA) conference attended by leaders from 10 Asian and Pacific Jewish communities. They represent communities ranging in size from 250 in Thailand to 75,000 in Australia.

In view of these developments, the APJA conference should have resembled a wake, with leaders mourning the demise of their once proud communities. But the meeting was far removed from that. What was apparent among the delegates was a determination to continue.

There was a clear sense that, while aliya was the preferred, and in many ways the only long-term solution for the smallest communities, the onus was on the current leaders to provide sufficient Jewish education and Jewish identity for their young so they would not be lost totally to Judaism.

Despite their smallness in absolute terms, and the relative decline for some communities from their once inflated numbers, the leaders have decided not to despair but to plan for the future in cooperation with the other regional communities.

AUSTRALIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY LOOMS LARGE

Australia, which at most international Jewish conferences is the small relative, here looms inordinately large. For a community of 60 families, such as Manila, the 75,000 strong Australian Jewish community seems like paradise.

And it is Australia which is assuming the mantle of regional responsibility where, the conference agreed, international Jewish organizations have not been active in the past. The APJA president, isi Leibler, who also heads the Australian Jewish umbrella organization, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, warned that given the role the nations of Asia, particularly such significant powers as the People’s Republic of China and Japan are already playing, and are certain to play in the 21st century, world Jewry ignores the region at its peril.

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