Fate can lead to unexpected and often exciting happenings. I was lunching with my longtime Hong Kong friend Patsy, an executive at the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, where I stay when I’m in that part of the world. During our conversation, I happened to mention that one of my interests that I really enjoy is discovering and writing about Jewish communities around the world.
She stopped me mid-sentence, stared at me and then in a most incredulous tone, asked if I knew about the synagogue next door. After years of staying at this grand hotel, I learned that on the second floor of a small mall just metres away, was an Orthodox Sephardi shul, the Kehilat Zion Hechal Ezra Synagogue
Kowloon? Synagogue? I had lived on the island of Hong Kong, just a Star Ferry ride away from Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui area, and I certainly knew about the largest and most important synagogue, the famed Ohel Leah. However, I feel excused since Hechal Ezra Synagogue (as it is known) was opened in 1995, and that was about the time we were ready to return to Canada.
Immediately after having the best Chinese lunch from the hotel’s new summer menu at the award-winning Shang Palace Restaurant, which is not kosher, within minutes – lo and behold – on the second floor of the mall, I discovered a three-room establishment that included a glatt kosher, kosher lemehadrin restaurant, Mul Hayam, under the supervision of Rabbi Netanel Meoded.
Rabbi Meoded was out. So a very pleasant young woman from the Philippines agreed proudly to show me the establishment. She had been working at Hechal Ezra for five years, and she was anxious to point out certain items that I might have missed. None was extra special, but to her innocent eyes, every book and item of memorabilia was a valuable asset.
There is a small bimah and a few Torahs, she said. She didn’t know how many might be behind a well-preserved, heavily embroidered curtain. Nearby tables were piled high with books, others were preserved behind glassed-in shelves with a few piece of memorabilia.
Thinking that no one but the clean-up staff was still there in the hot middle of the afternoon, I was surprised to hear a conversation from the adjoining room. Two Americans were lingering after lunch, and this being Kowloon, Hong Kong, of course they were talking business. Meanwhile, the other tables that had been occupied during lunch were being wiped and cleaned to get ready for dinner. It had been a busy lunch. A major plus is that the restaurant caters to tourists and locals, and even has a service where they will prepare frozen kosher meals for take-away.
I asked for and received a varied menu. No one could go away feeling less than stuffed choosing from this four-page menu. Meals using Chinese, international, Moroccan and Yiddish dishes were available. Even the most sophisticated kosher palate would enjoy the offerings.
From one of the many curtained windows, I could see, just across the road, the new, conveniently located MTR, (the subway), which makes the area an efficient and well-located centre from just about anywhere in Kowloon or Hong Kong island, and thus makes both the synagogue and the eatery very accessible for those wanting kosher meals.
Although the young woman couldn’t recall the last time, if ever, there was a wedding, she did remember that there was once one bar mitzvah. First, however, I had to explain what a bar mitzvah is, and then she recalled one celebration that sounded like the ones I had described
Another young, non-Jewish assistant had brought her homemade meal, and, taking a chair, she moved it out of the synagogue area, and ate her meal far enough away from the kosher kitchen.
The Hechal Ezra Orthodox Sephardi prayer hall, is the sort of venue I adore. .. small and heimish.
This experience is only one of the reasons I love to travel. The unexpected whets my appetite, and I especially enjoyed this unexpected visit to this quaint but fine synagogue. On the High Holidays, the room is packed, mainly with the Shangri-La Hotel’s guests and locals in the area who want some Jewish input.
The discovery was one of the bright spots among many in this territory, where there is no anti-Semitism, but rather respect for Jewish people who have become part of the texture of this diverse, quilt-like area of the world and where Jews found safety in cities like Shanghai during World War II. Many stayed and made a life in the territory, often becoming successful professionals and businesspeople and still retained their religious beliefs. Hechal Ezra Synagogue has become their home away from their original home.
To my surprise, this Orthodox Sephardi synagogue has morning and evening minyans each day. After morning services, there’s a savoury kosher breakfast.
Sunday to Friday, from noon to 10:30 p.m., meals are available in the restaurant. The restaurant is also open Friday night after Ma’ariv and Saturday morning after Shacharit