ohel rachel synagoge

house of rachel
The ivy-covered Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Shaanxi Road
was built by tycoon Jacob Sassoon in 1920 in memory of his wife, Rachel.
(Photo: Shanghai Daily)

Jacob Sassoon built an empire in old Shanghai, but his sweetest legacy is the temple he built for his wife, writes Tina Kanagaratnam.

The Sassoon family made their fortune in Shanghai: everyone knows that. It was Sassoon money that built so many of Shanghai's landmarks: the Peace Hotel, Grosvenor House, the Metropole -- everyone knows that, too. But what everyone perhaps does not know is that the fabulously wealthy Sassoons also gave generously back to their community, and their most significant gift was the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. 

Ohel Rachel (``House of Rachel'') stands quietly on Shaanxi Road, a stately Greek Revival temple whose grandeur is somehow enhanced by the patina of age (and half a century's worth of ivy). 

Today, it is part of the Shanghai Education Commission compound, (and used only occasionally by the Jewish community). But when it was first built in 1920, it was the religious center of Shanghai Sephardic Jewish life. The Sephardic Jews are of Spanish/Middle-Eastern descent (the word is Hebrew for ``Spain''), dating from the period when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled all those practicing the Jewish faith. This was a direct result of the Spanish Inquisition: the concern was that the Jews who had been converted to Catholicism would be swayed by the Jewish faithful. The Spanish Jews left for the Middle East, where, says Rebecca Weiner of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, ``they were treated as elites among Jews. 

Many times they had a secular education and often had great wealth.'' Certainly that held true in old Shanghai, where Sephardic Jews from Mumbai and Baghdad were among the first to arrive, and made the greatest fortunes. The wealthiest families in old Shanghai were all Sephardic Jews: the Sassoons from Mumbai and the Hardoons and Kadoorie from Baghdad. Patriarch David Sassoon opened a branch of the Sassoon Trading Company in Shanghai in 1845, hoping to get a piece of the lucrative opium trade, and both Silas Hardoon and Ellis Kadoorie first worked for the Sassoon Company when they arrived in Shanghai. Oppression from the Governor and Wali of Baghdad had caused the Sassoons to flee Baghdad for Mumbai, where they grew to become the wealthiest family in India. 

There, they were great benefactors: David Sassoon established the Ohel David Synagogue in Poona and the Sassoon hospitals; Jacob Sassoon, his grandson, established the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai and an elementary school that later became the Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School. 

Their generosity was not limited to India: in Hong Kong, where David Sassoon first set up a branch in 1844, Jacob Sassoon built the Ohel Leah Synagogue, today the oldest surviving synagogue in Asia, in memory of his mother, Leah Sassoon. 

In Shanghai, he built Ohel Rachel, in memory of his wife, Rachel. Sir Jacob himself died a few months before construction was completed, and the Sephardic Jewish community dedicated the temple to both Sir Jacob and Rachel. The imposing Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which faces Jerusalem, was the largest synagogue in Asia, with the capacity to hold a congregation of 700 -- not coincidentally, the number of the Sephardic Jewish population in Shanghai at the time. 

The Greek Revival style seems unusual -- most synagogues took their cues from Middle Eastern tradition -- but Sassoon wanted to commemorate the history of the Sephardic Jews, and the architectural inspiration came from London's Bevis Marks Synagogue, the 1701 temple built by Spanish Jews, and the 1890s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue with an imposing domed roof, also in London. 

The interior, say contemporary accounts, was as grand as you might expect of a synagogue attended by the wealthiest in Shanghai: grand crystal chandeliers; highly polished wooden pews; 30 19th-century Torahs (scriptures used in Jewish services) from Baghdad; gorgeous marble pillars that frame the entrance to the Ark, the Jerusalem-facing sanctuary set into the wall of the synagogue where the Torah is stored. In fact, it may have been too luxurious for some: Rabbi Hirsch is said to have left after some time, unhappy with all the wealth at Ohel Rachel. Ohel Rachel, like many synagogues worldwide, was not merely a place of worship, but also a center for the community. 

Within its grounds was also a mikvah, or ritual bath -- now gone -- and the Shanghai Jewish School, now part of the Shanghai Education Commission. Founded by D.E. J. Abraham in 1900, it was endowed by Horace Kadoorie in 1932, and became Shanghai's premier Jewish school. Betty Grebenschikoff (formerly Ilse Kohn, a refugee from Berlin), as quoted by Shanghai historian Tess Johnston, remembers: ``My sister and I were transferred to the Shanghai Jewish School on Seymour Road, even though it would mean some financial hardship for my parents to pay the school fees (US$5 per month) ... Many nationalities were represented at the school. 

As Hongkew (Hongkou) refugees, we felt properly intimidated at first by so many different children, who took their time making friends with us and often made fun of our German accents. The girls' serge school uniforms were always perfectly pressed, all the pleats in their skirts hung razor straight.'' Ohel Rachel suffered during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, when a Japanese garrison used it as a stable. 

Aba Toeg's family, who attended Ohel Rachel, stored the Torahs and pews -- and helped clean up the synagogue after the Japanese left. In 1952, Toeg's family sent the Torahs to Israel -- never to be seen again -- and handed over the synagogue to the government. 

The synagogue was used primarily as a warehouse and office space in the intervening years, but in 1998, a meeting with then-Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi and US Rabbi Arthur Schneider set the wheels in motion for the renovation of Ohel Rachel. It was done, in part, by using the memories of Aba Toeg, who was invited back by the Jewish community to help with the restoration. The years of neglect have taken their toll on the structural integrity of the building, and in 2002 it was listed on the World Monuments Watch list of endangered buildings. Today, although Ohel Rachel's location within the education commission grounds precludes its regular use as a synagogue, it is used four times a year by the Jewish community (Hanukah and Purim were both celebrated here) -- another link in Ohel Rachel's long legacy. 

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