Shanghai Jewish community celebrates a milestone event

A glass was smashed, and a cheer went up. After months of careful negotiations with the Chinese government, Shanghai’s Jewish community recently celebrated a revival as a historic synagogue opened for its first wedding in about 60 years.

Shanghai has special meaning for the global Jewish population after it took in tens of thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II. The city’s Jewish community and the foreign community at large soon faded away, however, after the communists took over in 1949 and heavily restricted both business and culture. For decades, the practice of religion was discouraged, and places of worship were torn down or given secular uses, such as storage spaces for grain.

But China’s largest city is regaining its cosmopolitan reputation as the country continues its dramatic rise, and the Jewish community of foreigners now numbers more than 2,000.

Maurice Ohana, the president of the current community, still knew, however, it would be hard to get access to the Ohel Rachel synagogue for his daughter’s wedding in March. Judaism isn’t one of the five recognized religions in officially atheist China because of the lack of native Jews, so the community worships quietly, in local apartments.

Ohel Rachel, built in 1920 by an earlier Jewish community of businessmen with roots in Iraq and India, remains in the hands of Shanghai’s education ministry. Once used for storage and now used from time to time as an auditorium, it was named one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund in 2002 and 2004.

Almost all of its Jewish decorations have disappeared, except for a plaque outside the door, a Star of David carved at the top of a dusty stairway and a sign inside in Hebrew that translates to “Be aware in front of whom you’re standing.” The synagogue has opened just a few times a year for major Jewish holidays after being rededicated 10 years ago.

Ohana, a Moroccan businessman, decided to ask local Chinese academic Pan Guang for help. Pan, the dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, began many months of discussion with the government.

“We tried to explain the importance to the Jewish community,” Pan said after the wedding, as the crowd of about 400 swirled by. Some in the new Jewish community have family connections to the past, he added.

A few of them were at the wedding. “My father was a Russian Jew in Shanghai,” said Jim Kaptzan, a U.S. businessman who said his father came after fleeing the 1917 communist revolution in Russia. “He used to always tell me Shanghai was the place to be. It’s heartwarming to be in the place where my father prayed freely.”

Shanghai was famously cosmopolitan in the years before the communists took over, and the Jewish community had its own schools, newspapers and at least seven synagogues. However, “I would say from the middle of the 1950s to the middle of the 1990s, there was no Jewish presence here,” said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli art gallery owner who hosts tours of Jewish Shanghai.

Now Shanghai’s other remaining synagogue, Ohel Moishe, is a Jewish history museum.

Finally, with Pan’s help, the Chinese government agreed to open Ohel Rachel for the wedding. The synagogue was full, with warm conversation in French, English and Chinese. The consuls for Israel, the United States, France and Argentina and the Moroccan ambassador took their places on the men’s side of the aisle as young Chinese women in traditional red silk gowns passed out delicate head coverings for the women.

“For us, being here tonight is a moving and very exciting event, and we hope we will have many more events in this place,” said the Israeli consul, Uri Gutman.

Rabbis from Singapore and Beijing helped Rabbi Shalom Greenberg with the wedding, while small boys with candles stood in front of the chuppah.

Ohana, the father of the bride, welcomed the guests in French but then changed to English for a single sentence. He looked at Pan in the audience and said, “We will never forget what you have done for us.”