18 April 2008

Shanghai: Ohel Rachel's first wedding in 60 years

In 1920, the Ohel Rachel synagogue in Shanghai was built by Iraqi and Indian Sephardi businessman. Although officially in the hands of the city's education ministry, it was once used as storage, occasionally now as an auditorium, and was named one of the World Monuments Fund 100 most endangered sites in 2002 and 2004.

While the community was a refuge, since the early 1920s, for Russian Jews and others later fleeing the Holocaust from Germany, the Chinese government took possession of the building in 1949 and Jews began to immigrate to other countries. Today, however, the Jewish community is growing again with some 2,000 living in the city.

Almost all Jewish symbolism has disappeared from the building, except for an exterior plaque, a Magen David at the top of a stairway and a Hebrew sign inside. Since being rededicated 10 years ago, it has only opened for major holidays a few days a year.

Recently it was the site of the synagogue's first Jewish wedding in 60 years. Moroccan businessman and head of the Shanghai community Maurice Ohana wanted to hold his daughter's wedding there.

Ohana finally succeeded in obtaining permission with help from Pan Guang, the dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, who assisted in the long negotiation.

"We tried to explain the importance to the Jewish community," Pan said after the wedding, as the crowd of about 400 in evening dress swirled by. Some in the new Jewish community have family connections to the past, he added.

Some were at the wedding. "My father was a Russian Jew in Shanghai," said Jim Kaptzan, a U.S. businessman who said his father came after fleeing the 1917 communist revolution in Russia. "He used to always tell me Shanghai was the place to be. It's heartwarming to be in the place where my father prayed freely."

In the old days, the cosmopolitan city had a thriving Jewish community, with schools, newspapers and seven synagogues. However, from the 1950s-mid-1990s, there was little or no Jewish presence. Ohel Moishe - the only other remaining synagogue -is a Jewish history museum.

Among the 400 guests were diplomats representing Israel, the US, France, Argentina and Morocco. Rabbi Shalom Greenberg officiated, assisted by rabbis from Singapore and Beijing.

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