Standing grandly yet discreetly just below Robinson Road, Ohel Leah Synagogue is the spiritual heart of Hong Kong’s 5,000-strong Jewish community. Today, in addition to being the site for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, the synagogue sees twice-daily services, including the week’s largest congregation on Saturday morning, which attracts around 140 people. But, as Rabbi Asher Oser, Ohel Leah’s religious leader, says, the synagogue also represents a way to connect to the past.
“This synagogue has really been the magnet for those who want to have a Jewish experience. It gives people a sense of rootedness in a transient city in a transient world,” he says. “When somebody sits on these seats, inevitably what goes through their minds is there are so many other people who came for a different sort of life, which sets a certain energy.”
Indeed, since it was built in 1901 by the Sassoon family, Ohel Leah has become one of the Jewish centres not only in Hong Kong, but in Asia.
“What makes it unique is that it’s not only one of the oldest synagogues in the region, it’s one of the few in continuous use since it was built,” says Erica Lyons, a member of the Jewish Historical Society and editor of Asian Jewish Life.
As with many historic buildings, the past of the Ohel Leah synagogue is somewhat shrouded in mystery. All of the official records were lost during the war, leaving the building’s history to be pieced together via various old photographs, newspaper stories and private archives such as that of the Kadoorie family. “We don’t know exactly what happened during the war but we know the Japanese occupied the synagogue itself, which probably saved it,” says Lyons.
Indeed, the synagogue, which Lyons says received significant improvements and extensions in its first decade in existence, was left largely untouched during the war, and still retains most of its original stained-glass windows, with its standout architectural features including its robust pillars and its ark – the place where the sacred torah scrolls are kept. “We haven’t seen an ark like this anywhere,” says Rabbi Oser. “Usually it’s just a large closet, but this is kind of a walk-in.”
One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the synagogue is how the Torah scrolls – the sacred handwritten texts, which each take around a year to write – were saved during the war. “It’s the stuff of legend,” says Lyons. “Some people say that one person came in and saved them all, under cover of darkness. Others say that, communally, people came together and took different ones and hid them.”
While it withstood the war, the creation of the city around the synagogue took its toll on the 111-year-old building, leading to significant restoration work in the mid-1990s. Says Lyons: “They found out the synagogue was unstable, so serious renovation went down. That’s what saved the synagogue.”
Article originally appeared in Time Out Hong Kong: http://www.timeout.com.hk/around-town/features/65117/hong-kongs-oldest-religious-buildings.html