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A Shul for Shanghai

Shanghai’s historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue was allowed to serve as a place of worship during the World Expo, which closes this week. Now what?

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The Ohel Rachel Synagogue in July.(Jackson Lowen)

Shanghai’s Expo 2010 will draw to a close on October 31. It is the largest World’s Fair in history, with 200 pavilions and nearly 70 million attendees expected. (Tablet Magazine’s Matthew Fishbane previewed the Expo, and its display of growing ties between China and Israel, in March.) For Chinese visitors, many of whom have never traveled abroad, the Expo has functioned something like a very crowded and slow-moving world cruise (waits for the most popular pavilions—Saudi Arabia, China, Japan—can take 12 hours). The Expo has also given Shanghai’s Jewish residents access to a local treasure: the Ohel Rachel Synagogue.

Built in 1920, the ornate synagogue, which was a place of worship for Shanghai’s Sephardic business community, has been shuttered for more than 50 years. Jewish leaders were granted permission to hold Shabbat services there for the sixth-month duration of the Expo. Rebecca Kanthor reports for Vox Tablet from Shanghai on the history of the synagogue and its congregants and on its prospects for the future. Running time: 8:23. 

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Burton Paikoff says:

When driving trhrough Seou, Korea in 1952, I passed an Iron gate that seemed to have a Big Jewish Star in the Top Center. I didn’t get to see much behind the Wall. I wonder if it once had a Distroyed Synagogue behind it or the entrance to a Cemetery. I could not see anything behind the wall. I wonder if anyone has any Information about this.It was during the War and Seoul was pretty much in Shambles.

My Friend Sig Tobias wrote a book ” Strange Haven ”
A Jewish Childhood in Wartime SHANGHAI !

You can read the book, or he can tell you many stories about this period.


Amy Stone says:

Rebecca Kanthor’s report is fascinating. She just touches on the Jewish “latecomers” to Shanghai — German and Austrian Jews fleeing Hitler. Those who could fled to Shanghai as the only open city in the world, where they could enter without a visa. For the history of that period, in which 18,000 Jews more or less survived, Ernest G. Heppner’s “Shanghai Refuge, A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto” makes a good starting point. Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal has been doing walking tours of Jewish Shanghai since 2002 and restoring the tombstones from the vanished cemetery where some 2,000 refugees were buried.

This is great news!!

However, this report fails to mention that the Ohel Rachel Synagogue WAS, in fact, open for services (at least High Holidays) and tours for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s-after an earlier re-opening following renovations in 1996. Then First Lady Hillary Clinton and then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were there. A photo of this event appeared in an exhibit, “Jews in Modern China,” (owned by a cultural arm of the Chinese government) that ran at the Presidio in San Francisco earlier this year. I chaired the exhibit as a board member of the American Jewish Committee-SF Bay Area Region.

I was able to tour the synagogue (with the Israeli predecessor to Dvir Bar-Gal operating the Jews in Shanghai tour business) in 2001 and early 2002. By the fall of 2002, when I led a Jewish tour to China, one could only visit Ohel Rachel with a Chinese guide–a situation which prevailed until the breakthrough reported in this podcast. I’d heard that the decision to close the synagogue to worship and most tours resulted from a somewhat arbitrary act on the part of one Ministry of Education official, not a major anti-Jewish or anti-Israel policy.

Perhaps that official has retired!

Dolly Joern says:

Great article. Was the congregation orthodox? There were no women in the picture of recent Shabbat services.

Sigmund Tobias says:

I lived in Shanghai, part of the Jewish refugee community that fled there to escape from the Holocaust. My parents belonged to the Ohel Moshe synagogue, where I had my Bar Mitzvah, located in Hongkew, now Hongkow, within the ghetto imposed by the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai during World War II. Ohel Rachel, located outside of that ghetto, was attended largely by the Sephardic community, though when the Japanese relocated the Mirrer Yeshiva to Shanghai from Kobe, Japan during the war the Sephardic Jews let them use Ohel Rachel as a temporary headquarters until they found more permanent quarters in Hongkew.

When I returned to Shanghai in 1988 as a visiting professor, I met the Chancellor of the Public Schools in Shanghai and he told me that his offices were located in an adjoining building to the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. These and other events are described in my book, “Strange Haven. A Jewish Childhood in Shanghai.”

Sig Tobias

Excellent piece. It always makes me nervous when I feel grateful to Chabad, but what can you say?

The report mentioned in a quick phrase that there were Jews in prewar Shanghai from Mumbai and Cairo, but that wouldn’t have been Shanghai. No one has mentioned the several thousand Russian Jews who would have filtered down from the north where they had earlier settled in Harbin, Tianjin, and a few other places until the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and later North China made life tough. They were definitely at the bottom of the Jewish social totem pole. There are a number of Chinese studies of the Jews of Shanghai, one or two quite good, and an Encyclopedia Judaica in Chinese which, barring a egregious error in the title, is excellent.

G. Leibowitz says:

Thank you for producing this story. Well done.

Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, his brother Rabbi Avraham Greenberg, and Rabbi Shlomo Aouizerat have, along with their families, done an outstanding job of creating a vibrant Jewish community in Shanghai. As the story suggests (and Rabbi Greenberg shared with me privately), they had to surmount numerous bureaucratic hurdles to get the government to allow the community to access Ohel Rachel for Shabbat services. My family has enjoyed them immensely.

The local community owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Chabad as well as to Maurice Ohana and the other leaders of the Shanghai Jewish community.

What next? We must keep Ohel Rachel open!!!

P.S.: Sigmund Tobias’ memoir of his days in Shanghai is excellent, I strongly recommend it. (My great uncle S. Weinblum was also in Shanghai after escaping Nazi Germany, something I learned after reading his fascinating account.)

Rebecca Kanthor says:

I appreciate all your comments, they really give readers important context and information.
Thank you Linda for adding specifics of the opening of the synagogue in the past two decades. Because of space concerns I couldn’t include all the details in my report, but everyone I talked to talked about the 1990s and early 2000s openings of the synagogue as important stepping stones to the current situation.
Sy and Amy, thank you for book recommendations. Sig, I look forward to reading your book. Thank you for sharing your memories.
Dolly, Good observation. Yes the congregation is orthodox, as it was in its early days. Back then, the women sat in an upper gallery, but these days, men and women sit separately on the ground level. The photos were taken by a male photographer which explains why there were no photos of women. But rest assured, we’re there!
J, Thank you for bringing up the the Russian Jewish population. You are right, they were a large and also an important part of Jewish Shanghai. As I understand it, the Sephardic Sassoon, Kadoorie, and Hardoon families were originally from Iraq, but had opened trading houses in Bombay and so some of their family and staff moved from India to Shanghai. In reading on the Jewish Company of Shanghai’s Volunteer Corps, there is mention that some of the Jews were from Cairo.
G. Liebowitz, thank you for your post. Through working on this story, I appreciate much more the hard work that the Rabbis and members of the Jewish community have put in to reopen the synagogue.

Eileen Spiegel says:

I am so happy to see this article. My great aunts and uncles escaped to Harbin during or before WWII. I was told that one great uncle helped to set up a shul there, not sure what the name was. He was also involved in the silk trade. His last name was Treguboff and his name wa mentioned in a book called The Fugu Plan.

I would love to find someone who may have been there at the same time or knew of this family.
Thank you

I was Bar Mitzvahed in that Synagogue! We had an active congregation, and Saturday morning services were always full. Our Sephardi community was smallish = about 1000 people in total. I visited shanghai in 1987, and saw the synaggoue. It was rundown and overgrown with weeds and bushes. And we were told it was being used as a warehouse. But 2 years ago, it was refurbished by the city municipal government, and there was a wedding there – the first in 60 years!!

Ezra Sion Nathan says:

My father Solomon H. Nathan was born in Shanghai. He was a Hazan and taught in the Shanghai Jewish Day School. His fondest memory is of the day the Mirrer Yeshivah came to Shanghai. The endless parade of yeshivah students coming off the ship is firmly etched in his memory. The community welcomed the yeshivah with open arms and gave over the Ohel Rachel Synagogue for their use. As the communists advanced through China the community fled Shanghai. Many of the community residents settled in the United States and Israel. My grandfather had a large collection of Seforim that were packed in crates and sent to Israel. Each Sefer was stamped with his name, Ezra S. Nathan. If anyone is aware of the whereabouts of any of these seforim please contact us.

What an amazing site that must have been for Jewish visitors – a fully functioning, architecturally complete synagogue in the middle of Shanghai. What did the interior of the building look like? What will happen to it, now that Expo is over?

judith klein says:

I lived in Shanghai from 1948-49 when my father was part of the US Expeditionary forces there (Army-AirCorp) and remember going to the shul as a young child. How wonderful to reflect.

I’ve had the distinct honor of performing for the Jewish community in Shanghai… but in the community center next door, not in the very beautiful Orthodox Ohel Leah. I don’t think there should be any cause for concern that this synagogue is in danger. First, it is in exceedingly good financial shape and second, the congregation is very family-heavy – young couples and the surest sign of a synagogue’s future: lots of children. The only risk to the synagogue is the one shared by the very large ex-pat (not Chinese) community… that one day China will decide to expel everyone and keep it all for themselves.


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A Shul for Shanghai

Shanghai’s historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue was allowed to serve as a place of worship during the World Expo, which closes this week. Now what?

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