Hong Kong is a ‘transient’ city, a destination where expatriates arrive and regularly leave. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Asia’s vibrant hub of business and commerce, home to more than seven million people, hosts several diverse communities and nationalities.
A tranquil part of busy, Robinson Road in the Mid-levels West area of the city serves as the epicenter of one such community, Hong Kong’s Jewish populace. For located here is a stunning edifice, the Ohel Leah Synagogue and its adjacent Jewish Community Centre. These organizations cater to the spiritual and social needs of Hong Kong’s Jewish community; a 5000-strong body of people of more than 20 nationalities.
The origins of Hong Kong’s Jewish community date back to the 1840’s with the arrival of Kadoorie family, who came here for trade and business. The Opium wars between China and the British led to the colonization of Hong Kong by the British in 1842. The free trade policy practiced by the British drew merchants from around the globe to Hong Kong including Jews from India and Iraq.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Hong Kong Jewish community had grown large enough to warrant the construction of a spiritual center. The community was mainly Sephardic in nature and featured members of the Sassoon and Kadoorie families, wealthy trading families who had long-established trading ties to Hong Kong and South East Asia.
In 1901, Sir David Sassoon commissioned the Ohel Leah synagogue on a plot on Robinson Road, to commemorate his mother, Leah Gubbay, the matriarch of the Sassoon family. A grand ceremony marked the laying of the foundation, the Sassoon family’s gift to the burgeoning Hong Kong Jewish community.
The renowned Hong Kong architectural firm Leigh & Orange designed and conceptualized the magnificent structure of the synagogue, which is intact until today.
The building is an exponent of colonial and baroque styles of architecture and has an off-white plastered brick exterior crowned with two tall towers. The interior of the synagogue sports a typical Sephardic layout with a central, wooden ‘Bimah’ (an elevated podium used for readings from the Torah) enveloped by softly, glowing lamps.
In 1905, another prominent Baghdadi dynasty, the Kadoorie family, provided funds for the Jewish Recreation Club. This club was set up on the verdant grounds of the synagogue and featured an assembly hall, restaurant, bar, library, billiards rooms and tennis courts. The club afforded stunning views of Victoria harbor in the distance.
During the Second World War, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese who looted and destroyed the club. The Japanese requisitioned the synagogue, but they didn’t cause much damage as the precious Torah scrolls had been smuggled out before their arrival. Jewish life in Hong Kong during the war came to a halt as many local Jews were interned in POW camps.
Post-Second World War
After the war, the Jewish community in Hong Kong expanded rapidly as many Jewish families arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai. The Chinese Civil war had resumed after in 1946, thus Jews living in Shanghai, fled and sought refuge in Hong Kong. In 1949, the Kadoorie family once again came forth to finance the establishment of a new recreation club on the site of the old one.
Hong Kong’s emergence as a leading, global business hub in the 1980’s resulted in hectic building activity on Robinson road and elsewhere. The synagogue and its environs were soon surrounded by towering skyscrapers. In the early 1990’s, the Ohel Leah synagogue sold its garden area to a developer, who went on to develop the site and build a condominium development comprising of two 47-storey tall residential towers.
This transaction funded the much-needed restoration of the synagogue and also allowed for the construction of a large new Jewish Community Centre. This facility has expanded now to include a Jewish day school, conference rooms, a reference library, an indoor pool, fitness center, kosher food serving restaurants and a supermarket for kosher food.
The restoration process of the synagogue got underway in 1996 and lasted until 1998. During this process, the structure's many ornamental and functional features including stained-glass windows, doors, shutters and carved benches were restored. Modern light fixtures were installed, as was a museum quality air-conditioning unit in the Ark area. This measure was specifically undertaken to protect the contents of the Ark from the destructive impact of Hong Kong’s persistently high levels of humidity. The ‘Bimah’ was moved to improve acoustics. New-tiered seating was also added to the women’s gallery.
The restoration process of the synagogue was a resounding success, which didn’t go unnoticed for, in the year 2000, the UNESCO bestowed on it 'the Outstanding Project Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in the Asia-Pacific region.' The restoration of the synagogue has also received accolades from bodies like Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Board and the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.
Today, the synagogue and its allied Jewish Community Centre remain at the forefront of Jewish life in Hong Kong. The complex, as it has in the past, continues to provide a sense of belonging and community to the over 200 Jewish families who feature on its membership rolls. The synagogue is accessible for tours by the public.