This Day in Jewish History / Baghdadi Jews Open Shanghai Synagogue

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On January 23, 1921, the community of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai dedicated the newly built structure that was to hold the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Named for Lady Rachel Sassoon, the late wife of Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, and situated on Seymour Road, today North Shaanxi Road, it was designed in the Greek Revival style of London’s Bevis Marks and Lauderdale Road synagogues.

Although physical evidence of the presence of Jewish communities in China has been found from as early as the eighth century C.E., and there are legends of remnants of the 10 Lost Tribes emigrating to China, Jews only began to arrive in Shanghai in the latter part of the 19th century, merchants who came to the port city to take advantage of the trading concessions gained by the British after the Opium War of 1839-42. Generally, they arrived from Bombay and Baghdad, with the best example being the family of David Sassoon, the founder of one of the great trading dynasties of the era. Although the empire created by David Sassoon and his eight sons both manufactured and sold commodities by way of a triangular trading route that included India, China and England, opium was their mainstay, and by 1871, they dominated world trade in the drug.

At their peak, the Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai probably never exceeded 800 in number, but they created physical landmarks and religious institutions, beginning with the Beth El Synagogue, established in 1887. Ohel Rachel was built to serve as the successor to Beth El. Its lavish sanctuary was built to hold 700 prayer-goers, and at its peak, its ark, which was flanked by polished marble pillars, contained 30 Torah scrolls. The location also included a mikveh and was the site of the Shanghai Jewish School.

The dedication of Ohel Rachel took place in the presence of its newly arrived spiritual leader, one Rabbi W. Hirsch. His journey took him through Singapore and Hong Kong. In Singapore, a member of the Jewish community was impressed enough to comment to that colony’s Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser: “I must congratulate Shanghai Jewish Community in securing such an intelligent man as Rabbi Hirsch … He delivered an intensely interesting address on Zionism and his good work will bear excellent fruits in the near future.” In fact, Rabbi Hirsch was gone within a few years, having reportedly been put off by the opulent lifestyle of Shanghai Jews.

In the 1920s, Shanghai became a refuge for Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Russian Revolution, who generally came by way of Harbin. They were followed by a third wave of Jewish immigrants from the Third Reich, beginning in the mid-1930s. The Japanese, who controlled Shanghai, did not require visas from people arriving in the city, and so it swelled with refugees, who numbered some 25,000 by 1943. They were interned in a ghetto under increasingly restrictive conditions, but the Japanese did not turn them over to the Germans.

In 2002, the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, long in disuse, was placed on the World Monument Fund’s watch list of endangered structures, and its ivy-covered building underwent a renovation. Today it houses the Shanghai Education Commission, but is has resumed use a Jewish sanctuary several times a year.

Jewish traders began settling in Shanghai in the late 19th century.Credit: AFP

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