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Jewish treasures of the Orient

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Outside the Ohel Leah Synagogue. (Sandy Bornstein photo)

Hong Kong is occasionally referred to as “Asia’s World City.” It’s easy to understand why many writers compare Hong Kong with New York City. Both are regional financial hubs, have notable skylines that ignite the evening sky, attract tourists interested in visiting historical and cultural sites, and boast outstanding restaurants, bars, and shopping.

Since vibrant cosmopolitan cities attract Jewish entrepreneurs, I wondered if Hong Kong had a Jewish history worth exploring. Before I left home, I started researching.

While early historical records are scarce, I did find information about a Jewish community that dates back to the mid 19th century when Hong Kong was part of the British Commonwealth. The Sassoon family, originally from Bombay, was considered the Rothschilds of the East. As successful merchants, they were instrumental in creating the Hong Kong Jewish community. They established a Jewish cemetery in 1855 and donated the land for Hong Kong’s first synagogue. Ohel Leah Synagogue was subsequently completed in 1902. The three grandsons of David Sassoon requested that the synagogue be named in memory of their mother, Leah. After reading online that the synagogue and the cemetery were in use, I made an appointment with Erica Lyons, the co-chair of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, founded in 1984.

I met Erica at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), which is housed in a high-rise building, adjacent to the synagogue, on Robinson Road. We exited doors that led to a courtyard where the Ohel Leah Synagogue was hidden. The Edwardian free classical-style white building with brown trim appeared out of place in this modern complex, but at the same time well protected. I entered through the tall stained glass doors to see the restored, Sephardic styled, sanctuary.

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Even though the descendants of the Sassoon family have gone elsewhere, today the Ohel Leah sanctuary comes alive each Shabbat with more than 150 people. The members originate from approximately 15 nationalities and represent both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. Following Orthodox customs, women congregate in the second floor balcony area. On Purim, the ladies have a separate Megillah reading in the adjacent JCC. To meet the needs of Ohel Leah’s diverse population, the synagogue offers three distinct High Holiday services –  Sephardic, French-Sephardic, and Mizrachi.

As we walked, Erica, an American expat, talked nonstop about Jewish life in Hong Kong. She shed light on why my Internet searches had limited results. Most of the Jewish records were destroyed during the Second World War. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, the synagogue was taken over and many of the Jews were interned. While nobody can say for certain who saved the synagogue’s Torah scrolls, they were safely hidden. Erica opened the locked Aron Kodesh to reveal the synagogue’s treasured Torah scrolls enveloped in handcrafted cases.

Erica graciously shared background information about a handful of black and white images from the early 20th century that showed a much darker synagogue exterior. She also mentioned a few random facts. The next day, when taking Nathan Road to the Hong Kong Museum of History, I recalled one detail. Sir Matthew Nathan, a Jewish major in the British Royal Engineers, was the first, and only, Jewish governor of Hong Kong in the early 20th century.

In 2007, Sir Michael Kadoorie, a Jewish billionaire, founded the Hong Kong Heritage Project to help reconstruct the city’s history. In the 1880s, Michael’s grandfather, Ellis Kadoorie, settled in Hong Kong while his great uncle Elly Kadoorie relocated to Shanghai. The brothers invested in many lucrative businesses. Ellis undertook leadership roles in China Light and Power, the largest electricity-generation company in Hong Kong and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which currently owns the luxury Peninsula Hotel brand located in 10 major cities.

In their business offices, the family had preserved their private correspondence and some synagogue records. These documents along with subsequent oral interviews have added invaluable information to the fragmented historical record and shed light on the role that the Kadoorie family and the Joint Distribution Committee played in safeguarding the Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Second World War. In the postwar era, the Kadoories also helped Shanghai’s Jewish refugees find safe passage through Hong Kong. Many stayed temporarily in the Peninsula Hotel before they were repatriated to Europe or resettled in Israel or elsewhere.

Today, Hong Kong’s diverse Jewish population that numbers a few thousand can choose from seven different congregations spread throughout the city. In the 1990s, there was a heated controversy over the future of Ohel Leah Synagogue. The local government had determined that the property’s wall was no longer stable. A portion of the membership was intent on restoring the building while another group wanted to tear down the aging structure and build a new building.

In 1996, the building was totally renovated. A UNESCO Outstanding Project Award for historic preservation acknowledges their efforts. As part of the overall plan, the wall was repaired, two high-rise apartment buildings were erected, and the entrance to the synagogue became more secure. The towers house the JCC, a swimming pool, two kosher restaurants, a kosher food store, a Jewish day school, and 20 apartments that provide rental income.

The Hong Kong Jewish community supports day schools that meet the needs of its members from preschool through high school. The secondary school prepares its students for international college entrance exams. After graduation, the Jewish students tend to relocate and not return to Hong Kong. As a result, Jewish empty nesters oftentimes choose to leave Hong Kong after their children reach college age.

Had Erica not described the entrance to the cemetery in Happy Valley, we may have missed the stone pillars with tiny Jewish stars and the turquoise metal gate that led to a narrow passageway. The adjacent Buddhist temple and its school swallowed up the obscure entrance.

As I weaved my way through the rain and deep puddles, I stopped to look at a potpourri of gravestones. Some were ornate while others were simple. Most of the inscriptions were in English and Hebrew, but I did pass some in Dutch, French, German, and Russian. A winding path led upward. I eventually reached the last level, where I looked down on the tiered cemetery. Like Hong Kong’s current population of Jewish expats, the deceased came from a multitude of places. Fortunately, the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society has made concerted efforts to memorialize the departed on their website.

Since the mid 19th century, Hong Kong’s Jewish community has opened its arms to a diverse group of Jews who settled in the city. As the Jewish population ebbed and flowed, each generation worked toward meeting the needs of its people. For the last few decades, the leadership has been piecing together its history so the past will not be lost forever.