Shanghai's Jews celebrate historic synagogue reopening
There are many sounds common to Shanghai: cars honking, construction machines grinding, bicycle bells ringing. And since May 7 in Jing’an, you have been able to add Friday night Shabbat prayers to that list. For the 2010 Expo the Shanghai government opened the historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue for Friday and Saturday prayer services and high holidays to the city's Jewish community, recalling an important chapter in Shanghai's history.
So there is special effort here by Chinese authorities on Friday and Saturday when the ministry is closed to open the premise for Jewish practice. This is truly highly appreciated by Israel.— Jackie Eldan, Israeli Consul General
Built in the 1920s by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, Ohel Rachel was named for Sassoon's wife Rachel. Sassoon was a Sephardic Baghdadi Jew who was part of Shanghai’s first wave of 30,000 to 40,000 Jewish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century, mainly from India and what’s now Baghdad.
The Sassoons built many of Shanghai's landmarks: from the recently re-opened Fairmont Peace Hotel, to Grosvenor House and the Metropole. But as the Jewish community left Shanghai, Ohel Rachel was closed and from 1949 became part of the Shanghai Education Commission compound, used mainly as a warehouse. It sat idle for nearly 60 years until it was visited by Hilary Clinton, then as the spouse of former president Bill Clinton, and then it was re-opened at the start of the Shanghai Expo.
Ohel Rachel was one of old Shanghai’s six synagogues, only one of two still standing today, the other being Ohel Moishe in Hongkou which has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of Jews in Shanghai.
The synagogue, considered one of the world's 100 most endangered monuments, has been occasionally used over the past decade by the Shanghai Jewish community for holiday services, but it was no longer a consecrated synagogue. It was only with the arrival of the Expo that the Chinese government allowed the Jewish community to renovate and re-open the synagogue on the weekends (Shabbat) when the Education Ministry is closed.
“Ohel Rachel is the only remaining synagogue from the glorious past of the Jewish people here in Shanghai and when we come to a city and see a synagogue deserted it is most important to try and make it active once again,” says Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch, which runs the Shanghai Jewish Center. “Spiritually, we believe that a place which was built and used in a holy way, the holiness remains in the place and so we should make an effort to continue to pray in that location.”
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Ohel Rachel, the Expo and Israel
“Ohel Rachel has been a complicated issue because physically it is situated within the Shanghai Ministry of Education,” explains Israeli Consul General Jackie Eldan. “Ministries are secluded sites where usually non-officials cannot approach. So there is a special effort here by Chinese authorities on Friday and Saturday when the ministry is closed to open the premise for Jewish practice. This is truly highly appreciated by Israel.”
Rabbi Greenberg agrees, crediting the Chinese government with allowing continual use of the synagogue in honor of the 2010 World Expo.
Ohel Rachel is the only remaining synagogue from the glories pass of the Jewish people here in Shanghai and when we come to a city and see a synagogue deserted it is at most important to try and make it active once again.— Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch
“The government is making the effort to welcome foreigners to Shanghai especially now with the opening of the World Expo,” he says. “It was important for them to show that all religions have a place of worship in Shanghai even if they are not yet categorized as a ‘recognized religion’."
Although Judaism is not one of China's recognized religions, it is still a positive step forward for the Shanghai Jewish community, which numbers on average between 3,000, to 4,000 people.
“It was a dream come true [for Ohel Rachel to be opened for Shabbat] and a major issue that also got much attention in Israel,” says Consul General Eldan. “Not only religious and culturally but also politically. We see it as another strengthening of the relation between Israel and China -- a very positive signal, well-noticed in Jerusalem.”
Far from a finished process, Ohel Rachel and the Shanghai Jewish community have much more to work out with the local government, starting with what happens with the building after the Expo.
“Officially we don't know what will happen after the Expo, but we still have great challenges at hand,” explains Consul General Eldan. "We still need to renovate the place properly. The building itself is beautiful, amazing, but it has been shut down for many years, used as storage so there is much to do.”
Step by step though, the Shanghai government has worked with the local Jewish community to rebuild the legacy the Sassoons left in Shanghai, and fingers are crossed around the city -- and in Israel -- that it won’t end in October.
Ohel Rachel Synangogue
500 Shaanxi Bei Lu, near Beijing Xi Lu