Two New York Jews Visit the Hong Kong Jewish Community

Hong Kong Jewish Community at Ohel Leah Synagogue

Before leaving Hong Kong, my wife and I wanted to explore a location we had seen on our map. It had been marked with a single Jewish Star printed atop two intersecting roads. We assumed it was a synagogue. Was there a Hong Kong Jewish community?

 

The climb to this Jewish Star was as strenuous as mounting Masada, since the hills south of Hollywood Road (or SoHo) rise steeply. But we eventually made it to the top of SoHo and peered down at the Ohel Leah Synagogue from Robinson Road, which was about fifty feet higher up the Hong Kong mountain than the place of worship.

 

“What are you doing?” a man in a security outfit said to two seconds after we stopped on the sidewalk to look at the synagogue.

 

“We’re looking at the synagogue.”

 

“What do you want with the synagogue?”

 

“To look at it,” I reiterated.

 

“Why?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.

 

“Because we are interested in seeing the synagogue.”

 

“But why?”

 

“Because we’re Jews,” I finally said.

 

The Chinese guard finally looked satisfied. “Do you want to go in?”

 

“Sure. But how long does it take because we have to leave for a flight in less than an hour?”

 

“Not too much time.” He radioed ahead and we walked to the next guard at the entrance to the synagogue. We handed him our passports.

 

“Where are you from? Why are you here? Are you Jewish? What interest do you have with the synagogue?” He asked at least twenty questions, which was more tedious than listening to the four questions asked by a novice Hebrew school student at the Passover Seder.

 

I don’t know if I’m so interested anymore. Can I have my passport back? I wanted to say. I had visited holy sites in Israel just after attacks and Polish synagogues where the surrounding neighbors sketched swastikas onto concrete and shouted epithets at Jews. And even then there wasn’t this much security. How anti-Semitic were the people of Hong Kong?

 

“Your bags.” He searched those meticulously. “Walk through the metal detector… Please walk back… Walk through again.”

 

You read my name right? It’s Noah Levi Lederman. Listen Mr. Chen, unless you buy a vowel and insert that O in between the C and H, I think you should make quick with this operation.

 

He finally handed back our passports and invited us in.

 

We took an elevator downstairs. A JCC flyer said that camp would be hosting Frizzy Friday for the kid who came to camp with the frizziest hair. My heart went out to those straight-haired Chinese Jews.

 

The soft-yellow synagogue was dark inside–a black and gray checkerboard floor, a grayish-blue vaulted ceiling, nearly opaque stained glass, stained wooden pews, faintly lit candelabrums, and austere chandeliers. At the rear of the temple was a pre-set Shabbat table with brightly colored cups.

 

With all of the questioning that delayed our entry, I wondered if the Hong Kong Jewish congregation was forced to celebrate Shabbat on Sunday.

 

Hong Kong Jewish Shabbat Dinner

 

Fun facts about the Hong Kong Jewish community:

 

The first group of Jews to Hong Kong were Jewish traders from Iraq and India in the mid-1800s.

 

Eastern European Jews started to arrive in Hong Kong in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1930s.

 

During WWII, Japanese armed forces occuppied Hong Kong and interned Jews in POW camps.

 

There are over 200 families from over 17 countries who belong to the Ohel Leah Synagogue, which makes up a significant portion of the Hong Kong Jewish population.

 

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

10 Responses to Two New York Jews Visit the Hong Kong Jewish Community

  1. Sam

    Great article.
    I find that in our travels,I’ve visited more churches & mosques . I hadn’t been in a synagogue in years. Until we visited the Eldridge st synagogue, 3 blocks from my apt..great dumpling place down the block.

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks. That’s my experience, too. Mostly because there are more churches and mosques around the world. Many people suggest davening and dumplings.

  2. Larry

    I had a completely different experience. Maybe you look suspicious. I visited the JCC in the high rise, the Ohel Leah with its amazing woodwork, and the adjacent liberal synagogue. There were even two sukkahs on the property, one for each synagogue, and a sit down luncheon. Also, down the escalators in Central or at the base of Hollywood Road was another shul in an apartment/office building which was a breakaway from Ohel Leah (you know the adage: two Jews, three synagogues)

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks for sharing all of that. We weren’t able to enjoy most of what you experienced as we had to race to the airport. I never realized that maybe people do perceive me as a super shady character and that my wife looks like a criminal. I can’t wait to tell her.

  3. pointsandtravel

    Great job storytelling this one! so funny. You also made me laugh with the reply to snarky Larry, your “wife will be excited to know she looks like a criminal”!!! Maybe you can arrest her?!
    pointsandtravel recently posted…Ways to get a First or Business Class UpgradeMy Profile

  4. Ross

    hey Noah- I reckon the security guy was just doing a good job (he did let you in the end). Anyhow if you’d been half organised you would have called ahead . Try India some time if you want to see security !

  5. Agent T

    Hi, I’m interested in visiting the JCC and the synagogues inside as well. The last time, I wasn’t able to enter due to the lack of time and the security guard. I don’t understand why such high security. Its not Israel or the Middle East. Hong Kong is not a dangerous place for Jew or non-Jews. Did you figure out why they have such high security there?

    • Noah Lederman

      While my piece was an attempt to evoke a laugh, the reason for the security is warranted. Wherever there are Jews there has been anti-Semitism; and wherever there is anti-Semitism there are usually enough extremists–just one is enough–willing to act on their violent and radical beliefs. While it does seem a bit paranoid and excessive to have such tight security in Hong Kong, I’m sure people have said that about other synagogues around the world… until they were bombed.

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