Shanghai’s religious history reaches far beyond Buddhism, Confucianism, and local faiths. As well as traditional religions, Judaism has flourished here. The Jewish community residing in Shanghai today represents a long and multi-faceted journey stretching back to the 1800s.
Jewish migration to Shanghai happened in three waves, the first in the 1840s. A treaty was written giving Hong Kong to Britain as pay-back for the Opium War, as well as opening several east coast cities for international trade. One of these was Shanghai. The first Jew recorded as having entered the city was a British soldier in 1841, but permanent settlers began to arrive in 1848. The first to come were Sephardim from Baghdad and Mumbai. Among them were the Sassoons and Hardoons who went on to establish businesses and build edifices like the Metropole Hotel, Sassoon House, Grosvenor House, Hamilton House, and Cathay Mansions.
Ohel Rachel, Photo: Susie Gordon
In the 1870s the Iraqi Jewish community began to seek a place for worship, so rented some space for prayer and services. In 1887 they established Beth El which flourished until the 1920s when the Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built in its place, to provide a spiritual home for the now 700-strong Baghdadi Jewish community. It was opened in March 1920 and consecrated by Rabbi W. Hirsch. Located at 500 Shaanxi Bei Lu (formerly Seymour Road), the synagogue used to hold 30 Torah scrolls, and included a Jewish school, a library, and baths. It was designed in the style of the Iberian Bevis Marks, and Lauderdale Road Synagogue in London, and was established by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his wife Rachel. Sassoon also set up the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong to commemorate his mother.
Ohel Rachel was the first of seven synagogues built in Shanghai. Along with Ohel Moishe in the Hong Kou district, it is the only one remaining. The restoration of Ohel Rachel was first raised in 1998 when then-President Bill Clinton came to Shanghai with his family and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They visited the synagogue and pushed for renovation. Hillary Clinton said that refurbishing Ohel Rachel would be “a very good example of respect for religious differences and an appreciation for the importance of faith in one's life.”
A year later, during Rosh Hashanah, the municipal government granted the Jewish community use of Ohel Rachel for 24 hours – the first time that the building had hosted active worship since 1952. This was the first of several openings, and hundreds of Jews attended each.
The second wave of Jewish migration to Shanghai came when thousands of Russian Ashkenazi Jews fled into north-eastern China to escape political unrest. They settled first in Harbin, Dalian, and Tianjin, but when the Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931 they moved down to Shanghai. By that time, the Sephardic community was well established, and helped the newcomers settle and find work. The Ashkenazim never grew to be as rich as the Baghdadis; they worked as shop keepers and musicians instead of bankers and real estate tycoons. However, their numbers swelled to nearly 5,000 during the 1930s. An important figure in the Russian Jewish community was Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, who was invited to head the Shanghai community in 1928 – a position he held until he moved to New York in 1949.
The Ashkenazi Jews built the Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Hong Kou in 1907. For the third wave of migrants escaping Nazi persecution in Europe, it became a safe house. Just as the Sephardim had rallied to help the Russian Ashkenazim, so the two communities joined forces to welcome the German and Austrian refugees who came in their tens of thousands. China was the only country which didn’t require a visa at that time. Among the Jews who arrived were Michael Blumenthal who went on to become the US Secretary of Treasury in the Jimmy Carter administration, and businessman Shaul Eisenberg.
Jakob Rosenfeld, doctor for the Chinese during the Chinese civil and 2nd Sino-Japanese wars
When the Japanese invaded in 1937 they relocated all European Jews to Hong Kou, forming a ghetto. Between 1939 and 1940, a thousand Polish Jews came to Shanghai via Japan. By the end of World War II, there were nearly 25,000 Jews living in the city. Most migrated after the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, moving to Europe or the USA.
Nowadays the Jewish community in Shanghai is small, but thriving. There are several hundred Jewish people living here, a number which grows by about 30% every year. An integral figure in modern Jewish Shanghai is Rabbi Shalom Greenberg. He came to Shanghai with his wife Dina in 1998 and enlivened the community with social events, Shabbats, bar and bat mitzvah training, and educational programs.
A good way to learn more about Jewish Shanghai is by taking a guided tour. Shanghai Jews (www.shanghai-jews.com) organise regular tours, starting at the Peace hotel which was built by Sir Victor Sassoon, then visiting the sighs of the former Hong Kou ghetto, and finishing at the Children’s Palace – former home of the Iraqi Jewish Kadoorie family. Entry to the Ohel Moishe Synagogue (Móxi Huìtáng) costs 50RMB and is open on weekdays between 9am and 4pm.
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