Shanghai Daily news
The ivy-covered Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Shaanxi Road
was built by tycoon Jacob Sassoon in 1920 in memory of his wife,
(Photo: Shanghai Daily)
Jacob Sassoon built an empire in old Shanghai, but his sweetest legacy is the
temple he built for his wife, writes Tina Kanagaratnam.
The Sassoon family
made their fortune in Shanghai: everyone knows that. It was Sassoon money that
built so many of Shanghai's landmarks: the Peace Hotel, Grosvenor House, the
Metropole -- everyone knows that, too. But what everyone perhaps does not know
is that the fabulously wealthy Sassoons also gave generously back to their
community, and their most significant gift was the Ohel Rachel Synagogue.
Ohel Rachel (``House of Rachel'') stands quietly on Shaanxi Road, a stately
Greek Revival temple whose grandeur is somehow enhanced by the patina of age
(and half a century's worth of ivy).
Today, it is part of the Shanghai
Education Commission compound, (and used only occasionally by the Jewish
community). But when it was first built in 1920, it was the religious center of
Shanghai Sephardic Jewish life. The Sephardic Jews are of Spanish/Middle-Eastern
descent (the word is Hebrew for ``Spain''), dating from the period when King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled all those practicing the Jewish
faith. This was a direct result of the Spanish Inquisition: the concern was that
the Jews who had been converted to Catholicism would be swayed by the Jewish
faithful. The Spanish Jews left for the Middle East, where, says Rebecca Weiner
of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, ``they were treated as elites
Many times they had a secular education and often had great
wealth.'' Certainly that held true in old Shanghai, where Sephardic Jews from
Mumbai and Baghdad were among the first to arrive, and made the greatest
fortunes. The wealthiest families in old Shanghai were all Sephardic Jews: the
Sassoons from Mumbai and the Hardoons and Kadoorie from Baghdad. Patriarch David
Sassoon opened a branch of the Sassoon Trading Company in Shanghai in 1845,
hoping to get a piece of the lucrative opium trade, and both Silas Hardoon and
Ellis Kadoorie first worked for the Sassoon Company when they arrived in
Shanghai. Oppression from the Governor and Wali of Baghdad had caused the
Sassoons to flee Baghdad for Mumbai, where they grew to become the wealthiest
family in India.
There, they were great benefactors: David Sassoon
established the Ohel David Synagogue in Poona and the Sassoon hospitals; Jacob
Sassoon, his grandson, established the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai and an
elementary school that later became the Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School.
Their generosity was not limited to India: in Hong Kong, where David Sassoon
first set up a branch in 1844, Jacob Sassoon built the Ohel Leah Synagogue,
today the oldest surviving synagogue in Asia, in memory of his mother, Leah
In Shanghai, he built Ohel Rachel, in memory of his wife, Rachel.
Sir Jacob himself died a few months before construction was completed, and the
Sephardic Jewish community dedicated the temple to both Sir Jacob and Rachel.
The imposing Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which faces Jerusalem, was the largest
synagogue in Asia, with the capacity to hold a congregation of 700 -- not
coincidentally, the number of the Sephardic Jewish population in Shanghai at the
The Greek Revival style seems unusual -- most synagogues took their
cues from Middle Eastern tradition -- but Sassoon wanted to commemorate the
history of the Sephardic Jews, and the architectural inspiration came from
London's Bevis Marks Synagogue, the 1701 temple built by Spanish Jews, and the
1890s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue with an imposing domed roof, also in
The interior, say contemporary accounts, was as grand as you might
expect of a synagogue attended by the wealthiest in Shanghai: grand crystal
chandeliers; highly polished wooden pews; 30 19th-century Torahs (scriptures
used in Jewish services) from Baghdad; gorgeous marble pillars that frame the
entrance to the Ark, the Jerusalem-facing sanctuary set into the wall of the
synagogue where the Torah is stored. In fact, it may have been too luxurious for
some: Rabbi Hirsch is said to have left after some time, unhappy with all the
wealth at Ohel Rachel. Ohel Rachel, like many synagogues worldwide, was not
merely a place of worship, but also a center for the community.
grounds was also a mikvah, or ritual bath -- now gone -- and the Shanghai Jewish
School, now part of the Shanghai Education Commission. Founded by D.E. J.
Abraham in 1900, it was endowed by Horace Kadoorie in 1932, and became
Shanghai's premier Jewish school. Betty Grebenschikoff (formerly Ilse Kohn, a
refugee from Berlin), as quoted by Shanghai historian Tess Johnston, remembers:
``My sister and I were transferred to the Shanghai Jewish School on Seymour
Road, even though it would mean some financial hardship for my parents to pay
the school fees (US$5 per month) ... Many nationalities were represented at the
As Hongkew (Hongkou) refugees, we felt properly intimidated at first
by so many different children, who took their time making friends with us and
often made fun of our German accents. The girls' serge school uniforms were
always perfectly pressed, all the pleats in their skirts hung razor straight.''
Ohel Rachel suffered during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, when a Japanese
garrison used it as a stable.
Aba Toeg's family, who attended Ohel Rachel,
stored the Torahs and pews -- and helped clean up the synagogue after the
Japanese left. In 1952, Toeg's family sent the Torahs to Israel -- never to be
seen again -- and handed over the synagogue to the government.
was used primarily as a warehouse and office space in the intervening years, but
in 1998, a meeting with then-Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi and US Rabbi Arthur
Schneider set the wheels in motion for the renovation of Ohel Rachel. It was
done, in part, by using the memories of Aba Toeg, who was invited back by the
Jewish community to help with the restoration. The years of neglect have taken
their toll on the structural integrity of the building, and in 2002 it was
listed on the World Monuments Watch list of endangered buildings. Today,
although Ohel Rachel's location within the education commission grounds
precludes its regular use as a synagogue, it is used four times a year by the
Jewish community (Hanukah and Purim were both celebrated here) -- another link
in Ohel Rachel's long legacy.