The Jewish presence in Hong Kong is almost 200 years old. The community began during the mid-19th century when traders from Iraq and India came to the island after the Opium Wars of 1839-42. As the 20th century approached, the growing community recognized the need for a permanent synagogue. A generous donation of land in an area then high above the city center was donated and funds for a synagogue building were made available by the Sasson family. The synagogue is named in memory of the family matriarch, Leah Gubbay.
In 1905, the Kadoorie family, a pre-eminent Hong Kong Jewish family, added to the community’s facilities by providing a building for a “Jewish Recreation Club,” constructed on the synagogue grounds. During the next four decades, the Jewish population of Hong Kong— largely Ashkenazi Jews escaping Russia and Eastern Europe—continued to grow.
In the decades since Ohel Leah synagogue was dedicated in 1902, Hong Kong has expanded, and the once distant from the center city property surrounding the synagogue became prime residential property. As it approached its centennial, Ohel Leah found itself facing serious structural and economic challenges. The decision was made to preserve the synagogue, but to develop the land surrounding it. The result is a beautifully restored sanctuary now encircled by residential towers. The complex centered around the synagogue includes a Community Center, Jewish day school, meat and dairy restaurants, a kosher supermarket, a swimming pool, community meeting rooms and offices—all incorporated into one of the towers built on former synagogue grounds.
70 Robinson Road is the listed address, but, there was no synagogue in sight. Announcing to no one in particular that “we’re looking for the synagogue,” led to directions to the security gate. A uniformed officer motioned each visitor through the metal detectors and initiated a thorough, Israeli style security check. Passports had to be presented and a series of questions answered. Every item was inspected and x-rayed before entry was allowed. Then you are directed through a doorway to the Ohel Leah courtyard. The hi-rises act as a fortress and the only connection to the outside world is through a gated staircase in the back, leading to Robinson Road.
Ohel Leah serves the Hong Kong Jewish community in an exquisite 110-year-old structure. A restoration and renovation project, initiated in 1997, took a full year to complete. The result was cited by UNESCO as an “Outstanding Project for Cultural Heritage Conservation.” It is an active, Modern Orthodox Jewish community with a membership of some 200 families from 17 countries. The congregation leads a vibrant Jewish life, maintains a day school, and welcomes travelers.
Rabbi Asher Oser is the Senior Rabbi. Ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, he holds a B.A. from the University of Sydney and a M.A. from McGill University. Prior to coming to Hong Kong in 2010, he had interned at the Park East Synagogue in New York City and served congregations in Norwich, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island. The rabbi and his wife, Rachel, an experienced educator, have three children. Oser is assisted by Rabbi Ariel Zamir, a former tank commander in the IDF. He and his wife, Dr. Ayelet Zamir, are graduates of the Amiel Institute of Advanced training for Rabbis, Educators, and Spiritual Leaders, a program specifically dedicated to the needs of the Diaspora communities.
The Sephardic International Synagogue of Hong Kong, Hechal Ezra-Kehilat Zion, is on an upper floor of a shopping mall. Founded 18 years ago to serve the Jewish community on the Kowloon Peninsula, the congregation follows the Sephardic minhag. Direction to found this congregation was given to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Meoded, by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s former Chief Sephardic Rabbi. The congregation “welcomes all Jews “whether Sephardim, Ashkenazim, or Hasidim,” says its fundraising literature. “Everyone can experience the beauty of unity while celebrating the unique individuality of fellow Jews.”
Hechal Ezra-Kehilat Zion provides a spiritual home away from home for more than 5,000 Jewish travelers passing through Hong Kong. Its sanctuary is a world out of time, with traditional wood paneling that creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere. This mid-morning, only the chazzan, a young Israeli from Jerusalem, was in the congregation. He extended warm greetings and welcome. He had come to Hong Kong, he said “to study and, of course, to be the chazzan (cantor).” We talked about several New York City based chazzanim he admired. Clearly the world of Jewish music is quite closely connected.
Hong Kong is an international city of color and movement—a fascinating, cosmopolitan, business-focused, hub of history and commerce with just enough Jewish content to feel at ease.
Imagine Shabbat in Hong Kong—kreplach, kibi, and chopsticks!
By Maxine Dovere