Shanghai and the Jews

There are signs of a Jewish presence in China from about the 8th century on.  Jewish traders traveled the Silk Route and some spent significant time in China.  Others married and settled down there.  The synagogue in Kaifeng was built in 1163 and from then on there was a Jewish community there.

Sephardi Jews from Bagdad started arriving in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century.  Among them were the Kadoorie family, the Hardoon family, and the Sassoon family.  These wealthy businessmen rose to the top of the Shanghai society of the time and established communal institutions and built notable buildings, among them the famous Cathay Hotel, now known as the Peace Hotel.  It still stands with pride along with other European styled buildings on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront on the Huangpu River.

The Peace Hotel on the Bund, Shanghai

In the beginning of the 1900s, Jews began arriving from Russia.  The two groups of Jews did not mix, but all established schools and newspapers and and restaurants, of course, synagogues.  Their communal life was rich.

When life became dangerous in Russia and Eastern Europe, Jews began flowing into China.  Between 1937 and 1939, over 20,00 Jews flowed into Shanghai.  At the height of World War II, Shanghai housed between 18 and 20 thousand Jews.  They lived in a ghetto area called Hongkou and the Chinese, who themselves were under attack by the Japanese, protected the Jews.  After the war, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, virtually all of the Jews left Shanghai.

Today, in Shanghai, there are still some locations where that experience is remembered.

Plaque in park in the Hongkou area of Shanghai

In gratitude for their treatment of the Jews during World War II, the Chinese received contributions from Israeli companies and the State of Israel to build a community center in the park.

Plaque thanking the people of China

Across from the park is the building that was used by the Joint (JDC) which provided social services to the people in the ghetto.

Former home of "the Joint"

Here is one of the roads where the Jews lived during that time.   Each building house several families.  Life was not easy.


Homes in the Shanghai ghetto

There is an excellent documentary about the Shanghai ghetto that shows how bad life was and how the Chinese and the Jews helped each other in times of privation.  Information about the film can be found here.

The Ohel Moishe Synagogue has been restored.  It is no longer in use because there is no longer a Jewish population in this area of the city.  However, the synagogue building itself is used as a museum and behind it, two more buildings have been constructed that show a phenomenal picture of  Jewish life in Shanghai, highlighting several families’ stories.  Visiting there is very moving and quite a relief from most museums that talk about Jews’ experiences during World War II.

Ohel Moishe Synagogue, Shanghai

Inside the synagogue


Inside the museum

You can read more about the Jews in Shanghai at this site.


Currently, Chabad has three locations in Shanghai with three rabbis working to enrich the lives of Jewish residents and visitors to Shanghai.  Their wonderful monthly magazine is on line here.

Come join us in China! There’s so much more to learn and to see.


Usually I write about exotic places far from my home. But, in fact, one half hour from my home is a city that defies comparison. It has been the Jewish capital for over 3000 years, and wherever Jews have lived, when they prayed they turned toward Jerusalem. In the Galapagos Islands, we consulted with our compass so that we could face Jerusalem in prayer. In China and Vietnam, we turned toward the west, in the direction of Jerusalem.

Mount Zion, Jerusalem

About a year ago when I was in South America, some of the people on my tour were talking about the magnificent time they had when they went to see the opera Nabucco at Masada. So, when I heard that this year they were performing Aida at Masada, I immediately tried to buy tickets. Unfortunately, because the opera started late in the evening, a hotel stay had to be part of the package and because people were coming from all over the world to see the opera, the tickets were expensive and the hotels could charge whatever they wanted. We realized that we could travel to Europe on two 5 day jaunts for the price of one night at the opera!

Disappointed, I looked to see if Aida was being presented in Jerusalem. It was not.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with this tempting offer: a night in a hotel in Jerusalem and two tickets to the Verdi opera, Jerusalem. The hotel was a newly renovated boutique hotel located within easy walking distance of the Sultan’s Pool Amphitheater, the venue of the opera, which lies at the base of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. How could I resist? Included were special gifts like chocolates and a bottle of wine, and a magnificent view from the large balcony overlooking the Old City.

We took the opportunity to visit the Begin Center, a wonderfully designed facility that teaches about the life and legacy of Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister and the man who was the first to make peace with an Arab country, Egypt.

Entrance to the Begin Center

Begin’s life was fascinating. He loved his land and his people. Begin was unaffected and humble. He was a man of principle. His first act as Prime Minister was to order the rescue of 200 Vietnamese refugees who had requested asylum. He wrote his own speeches.

Begin's handwritten remarks for the ceremony on the White House Lawn

After an impressive visit to the Begin Center, we made our way to the Old City.

Up the steps to Mount Zion

We climbed up to Mount Zion, a place we’ve been many times, but never fails to entrance me. We walked toward the Jewish Quarter. We found it bustling with people. The city is full of tourists from everywhere in the world, and everyone was having a great time. There are now numerous stores and restaurants in the Jewish Quarter, but our destination was the Hurva Synagogue. The history of the synagogue is here. Destroyed in 1948 when the Arabs captured the Old City and murdered some Jews and exiled the rest, the rubble lay waiting for redemption. In 1967, with the reunification of Jerusalem, a decision needed to be made about what to do with all of the destroyed buildings. Eventually, only an arch was erected at the ruins of the Hurva and it stood as a symbol of what had been there. Fortunately, the end of the story is a happy one. A year ago full reconstruction of the synagogue was completed, and we were able to see it in all of its glory last Monday. It was particularly then since they were going to be dedicating a sefer torah that night and the next night was shavuot. The synagogue was festooned with flowers.

After dinner, we descended Mount Zion and went back to the hotel to get ready for the opera.

Walking down from Mount Zion

. The Israeli orchestra and soloists were accompanied by a choir from Romania. There were thousands of people in attendance. The performance was magnificent. The setting, exquisite. We walked from the performance back to our hotel, looking back at the city walls. The atmosphere was magical.

As Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, said to the audience, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Malta, Part 5

Shabbat descended on Malta. We had had our frozen meals heated in the microwave just before I lit the candles and my husband brought them up to our room. We enjoyed a restful evening. We got up early in the morning and made our way to the synagogue.

Malta has a small Jewish community. There is one family that is primarily involved in keeping the synagogue going. Mr. Avraham Ohayon is the president of the congregation and one of his sons, Reuben, serves as the shaliach tzibor. Their extended family comprises a good portion of the Malta Jewish community. There are about 80-100 Jews in Malta.

We walked along the seaside and then veered to the right and a couple of blocks later, the synagogue was on the left. The synagogue is located in an apartment building. There is no indication on the outside of the building that there is a synagogue inside. We worried that we wouldn’t be able to get in because without a key, one would have to buzz to enter. That is one of the reasons we made sure to come early. As it happened, just as we got to the building, a woman was going into it via the front door and we followed her in. We walked up to the apartment which was located on the first floor above ground level. We knocked on the door, but no one else had arrived yet.

After a few minutes, Mr. Reuben Ohayon and some other people arrived. The apartment in which the synagogue is located is very large and the area was very pleasantly planned. The men’s section was long and thin with the ark at one end and the reader’s desk in the center. The men’s chairs were located on either long side of the room facing the center. The women’s section was at the back separated by a tasteful curtain. The room used for the kiddush was off to the side.

The service started at about 10 a.m. and the service followed the Ashkenazi (European) ritual even though the majority of Maltese Jews originally lived in northern Africa. There were two sifrei torah, one Sefardi and one Ashkenazi. About 25 men and about 10 women showed up as well as a number of children including the famous quadruplets, two boys and two girls who are now in their teens. During the torah service, the wimple (the long piece of fabric that is wrapped around the torah as is done in German synagogues) was given to the women to coil and it was passed from one woman to another and each held it and said a prayer. After the torah service, they said a prayer for the government of Malta, just as Jews in every land pray for the well-being of their government. Then they said a prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Forces. The service was very beautiful and very moving.

After the service, the very warm, welcoming congregation gathered for a lovely kiddush serving products mostly imported from Israel. A mixture of English, Maltese, and Hebrew was spoken. It was lovely meeting these people and with the increased number of Israelis visiting Malta these days, perhaps the community will gain strength.

Jews visiting Malta over shabbat should take advantage of the opportunity to visit the synagogue and meet this community. Since hotels are scattered throughout Malta, it would be a very good idea to locate the synagogue on a map and then find a hotel that is nearby. The synagogue is on Enrico Mizzi Street which appears on the map as Enrico Street in Ta’Xbiex. As a basis of judging distance, we stayed at the Park Hotel in Sliema and the walk was between 30 and 40 minutes.

Enjoy Malta, and when you get to the synagogue, be sure to give the people there my warmest regards!

Malta, part 1

One nice side benefit of living in Israel is that there are so many foreign countries within only 3 or 4 hours flight distance. Israelis love to travel. We often notice that in the most far-flung places we are likely to find Israelis. In fact, although there are only 7.5 million Israelis, we are far more likely to see Israelis than Americans when we travel abroad, whether it’s in Europe or Asia or South America.

Israeli travel agencies offer tour deals that are nothing short of amazing. If one wants a tour for 3 or 4 nights, one can find very inexpensive tours to a large number of European locations, frequently for under $400, many times under $300, which includes airfare, transfers, and hotels. We have traveled on these sort of deals to Crete, to Varna (Bulgaria), to Rhodes, and now, to Malta.

Malta is a very small country. Even compared to Israel, Malta is tiny. Malta occupies about 316 square kilometers or 121 square miles. Israel is over 20,000 square kilometers or over 8000 square miles! Malta is an archipelago which is located in the Mediterranean 93 kilometers south of Sicily. It is made up of three islands and several outcroppings. The largest island is named Malta and the second is Gozo. The third, Comino, is much smaller than the other two and is almost unoccupied. There are a couple of farmers who live there during the year and in the summer, there is a hotel which is open to tourists. People visit Comino to take hikes through its unspoiled countryside. The population of Malta is about 410,000.

Malta has numerous natural harbors and has many beaches. People there speak Maltese, a combination of Arabic, Italian, French, and other languages, including Hebrew. However, Malta has two official languages with the second being English. Maltese children all begin learning English as soon as they enter school. All signs are in English. The bookstores there are filled with English books. Virtually everyone on the island speaks English. That makes it a wonderful place for English speakers to visit. The British, in particular, enjoy visiting Malta for its beautiful landscapes and feel at home with the traffic following British road rules, driving on the left.

We arrived at the airport in Israel at about 3 a.m. for our flight. The airport was packed. It appeared that several groups of Israeli students had just returned from trips, probably to Poland, and they were very enthusiastic, dancing and joyful. It was a great way to begin our holiday!

When we finally arrived in Malta, we were treated to almost perfect weather which lasted during our entire visit except for one cloudburst that occurred while we were indoors for a few minutes.

Once we were settled into our hotel in a small city called Sliema, we decided to go exploring. Both of us like just walking through the streets of new places and this walk was mostly along the sea side, so it was beautiful and relaxing.

We knew that there was a small Jewish community in Malta, and so we made contact with the community leader who told me where the synagogue was located and when services were. We chose a hotel within walking distance, but we were not going to rely on fate to walk there in shabbat morning without having walked the route once with a map.

It took us about 45 minutes to find the building where the synagogue was located. The hardest part was finding the right building once we were within a block of it. There was not an address, only the name of the building. This seems to be the Maltese way since everywhere we saw signs on buildings with their names. Here are two examples of some of the nicer homes we saw. These homes had street numbers too. Unfortunately, the building that the synagogue occupied did not.

We tried asking people who lived within a block of it where the building was. No one knew. Finally, my husband said that we’d been told it was across from the old bowling alley. Someone pointed us in the right direction. Here is the building from down the block.

and here is the building up close.

Yes, its only address is “Florida Mansions.”

The synagogue is in an apartment converted for use as a synagogue. It is actually very nice. Unfortunately, I have no pictures, as we were not able to go inside then and the only time we were there was shabbat. But I will describe it when I talk about our shabbat in Malta.

We walked back to the hotel where we sat and waited for our dinners to be delivered. There is a man in Malta who supplies kosher meals to travelers. They are not inexpensive, but it was very nice being able to eat real warm meals. We ordered meals for all four dinners to be delivered frozen to our hotel at the same time since there was a 5 Euro delivery charge. We put the meals in their sealed plastic containers into our thermal bag, and the hotel stored them in the freezer and then heated them for us, sealed, in their microwave, each evening.

We looked forward to the next day: a tour of the island of Malta. Join us!

Details of the synagogue in Rhodes

Over the door of the synagogue in Rhodes is a large plaque that contains verses, all of which contain the word “shalom” which is the name of the synagogue. Shalom, of course, means peace.
The "Shalom" Plaque
Unfortunately the synagogue knew war and destruction. Years ago we visited the synagogue. I remember the interior looking very different. When I looked a bit closer this time, I saw that the interior had been repainted but they had left some of the original art that had been painted on the walls.

The interior showing some of the art work

The interior showing some of the art work

To the right of the chandelier on the right and on the left wall, you can see some of the wall painting that was preserved when the synagogue was repainted.
One of the details on the wall

One of the details on the wall

Unfortunately, this one was impossible for me to read. The letters were not clear.
Detail on one of the columns and a remnant of earlier painting

Detail on one of the columns and a remnant of earlier painting

Another wall detail

Another wall detail

The picture above is an artistic rendition of the tablets of the ten commandments. Interestingly, only two of the ten remain on them. It looks as if they were restored. I am puzzled as to why the rest of them are not there as the text is readily available. The two commandments on the wall are “Honor you father and your mother” and “Don’t murder.”
David's Harp

David's Harp

Above and to the left, you can see another patch of the remaining wall painting.

Visiting the synagogue was a moving experience. I looked at the few remaining illustrations and thought about how the once vibrant community was destroyed. Now only about 30 Jews live in Rhodes and the future of the community is by no means assured as their children have left to marry and settle elsewhere.

It’s worth our support and definitely worth a visit next time you’re in Rhodes.

How the Sifrei Torah in Rhodes were saved

I promised an interesting story about the sifrei torah in Rhodes. This is a story we discovered at the brand new Jewish museum in Rhodes.

The source of this article comes from an article written in 2004 by Aron Hasson in the “Ke Haber?” newsletter. Aron Hasson is the founder of the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. I highly recommend visiting there as it is a gem!

In 1943, the German military took control of Rhodes. Early in 1944, British bombs resulted in the deaths of thirty-four Jews. Realizing that the situation in Rhodes was not secure, the community decided to find a way to safeguard their sifrei torah, among them one that was about 800 years old.

In secret, they turned over the sifrei torah to the Turkish religious leader, the Grand Mufti of Rhodes, Seyh Suleyman Kaslioglu, who hid them in the pulpit of a mosque that was located in the new city of Rhodes, far from the old town which was the target of the bombings.

In July 1944, the Jews of Rhodes were deported by the Germans, most of them to Auschwitz. Of the 1,676 Jews deported, only about 151 survived the war. At the end of the war, all of the sifrei torah were returned to the survivors and to this day are preserved in the synagogue in Rhodes.

In a conversation in 1971 with a Jewish friend of his, the Grand Mufti confided, “One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was able to embrace the Torah and carry it and put it in the pulpit of the mosque because we knew that no German would ever think that the Torahs were preserved in the pulpit of the mosque.”

In a later interview with the daughter of the Grand Mufti, in 2004, she revealed that she “had Jewish blood.” Further investigation showed that the Grand Mufti’s father-in-law was Jewish and that through the years, the Grand Mufti had meetings with the Grand Rabbi of Rhodes and other Jewish leaders.
The Grand Mufti


Mosque pulpit

All roams lead to Rhodes

My husband and I were sitting around wondering where to go this winter where we wouldn’t freeze. My husband didn’t feel like going far, so it limited our choices. But we had been to Rhodes several times for a few hours at a time on cruises and always enjoyed visiting and always wanted to visit the museum in the Place of the Grand Master and never got there. Somehow, the ship always left Haifa late and our time in Rhodes was shortened. Rhodes has a fascinating history, having been conquered again and again by different countries and only returning to Greece in 1949.

We took off yesterday and in a mere one hour and fifteen minutes, we were here. The hotel is lovely, situated along the coast. The weather has been ideal.

Today, because it is Monday, all of the museums and archaeological sites are closed. In addition, because Rhodes is a very popular tourist destination in the summer, but not so much in the winter, most of the stores in the old town were closed. There was something quite amazing about visiting a very very beautiful place and having it almost to ourselves. Here are some of the things we saw:
Deer on columns at the port
Street in the Old Town
Courtyard in Old Town

Although we had visited the synagogue before, this visit was very special. The community is very small, number perhaps 30 people. All of the young people have moved away and the community only has a minyan when visitors are present. They have managed, however, to refurbish the synagogue and to convert part of the building complex to an attractive and moving museum of the history of the Jews of Rhodes.
Entrance to the synagogue
The Bima
The twin arks
Inside the museum

The rest of our walk was lovely too.

We did come upon a rabbit
The rabbit
or was it a horse?
A horse

And of course, here is a peek at the Grand Masters Palace…
Palace of the Grand Masters

More about the trip and especially an interesting story about the Sifrei Torah from the Rhodes synagogue and how they were saved during World War II… next time…

The Jews of Quito

One of the joys of visiting and revisiting places is that I get to see the same people time after time. I will be talking about the people I met in Quito, but to preserve their privacy, I won’t identify any of them.

The Quito Jewish Community has two major elements:

1. The large indigenous community that has a beautiful community center and a synagogue and lovely grounds. People in the community are of European origin, most of their families arriving before or during the Second World War. They number around 500 and have a community school of high academic quality that has a non-Jewish majority and afternoon religious school for other children in the Jewish community. The community is a Conservative community and so people who live throughout the Quito area can belong and attend services there. We were lucky enough to visit their complex and to see their synagogue.

After entering the complex, one sees two buildings with a patio area between them. To the left is the huge auditorium/banquet hall, said to the be second largest banquet hall in Quito. On the lower floor is a room that we used for lunch. It was also large and because the building was built on the side of a hill, it had large windows and an outdoor area as well. Further to the left outside is the swimming pool.

On the right is the synagogue building itself. Although the congregation president did speak with us about the community, we were not able to take a full tour of the facilities since we still had a lot to do and wanted to get back to the hotel well before shabbat so that people would have time to prepare.

The synagogue grounds

The synagogue grounds

The doors and entrance hall

The doors and entrance hall

The synagogue interior

The synagogue interior

Synagogue under attack by camera-wielding tourists

Synagogue under attack by camera-wielding tourists

The inside of the domed roof

The inside of the domed roof

2. The Israeli/Orthodox element
The first two times I visited Quito, I became acquainted with these people. They are almost all ex-patriots living in Quito for various reasons. Although it is possible to acquire many kosher products in Quito, the lack of the thriving Orthodox community means that they need to rely on each other to be neighbors, friends, and family. They do not have a synagogue and so they lean on each other when they need strength. Watching them interacting with each other is something special. They have become a family, accepting of each other, caring, and warm. They enjoy seeing and playing with each other’s children. When they came to spend shabbat with us, the visiting Israelis/ Australians/ Americans they were open and friendly and simply nice people. They joined in our tfilot (prayers), zmirot (songs), and divrei torah (homilies.) By now, returning to Quito is a bit like visiting family.

Jerusalem, Israel

I am lucky enough to be living in one of the most amazing parts of the planet. Israel is truly a miraculous country. It is also a very beautiful country.

I live in Modi’in, a new city, only 13 years old, with a population of over 70,000. We are located about 1/2 way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. A drive to either city is about 30 minutes long during non-rush hour times.

In June, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of one of our grandsons. On the way to the Western Wall, where the service took place, we passed some children on their way to school.

Morning in the Old City of Jerusalem

Morning in the Old City of Jerusalem

We walked a little further through the lovely stone streets in the peaceful light of early morning and saw beautiful scenes such as this

A street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

A street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

We then got to the area where the Hurva Synagogue had been. The Hurva Synagogue had stood on land that had been used for Jewish prayer since the 14th century. It was constructed beginning in 1836 and was completed in 1856. It was a big, beautiful landmark in the center of Jerusalem. In 1948, when the UN voted to finally recognize the Jews’ claim to the land of Israel, the Arabs were not willing to have a Jewish presence in the Middle East and attacked the fledgling state seeking to completely destroy it. Israel’s victory was nothing short of miraculous for the Jews were out-armed and out-manned.

However, despite the overall victory, the Jordanians had captured the Old City of Jerusalem and among their first acts was destruction of all of the synagogues. The Hurva was no more.

In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited, an arch was constructed atop the ruined building to mark the site of where the synagogue had been. After that there was a great deal of debate as to what to do with the area. Finally, in the last year or two, construction began to restore the synagogue and this is a picture of it in June as construction was continuing.

The Hurva Synagogue, under construction

The Hurva Synagogue, under construction

And this is the reason for this lovely outing, my fabulous grandson, Matan, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah that day! How proud we were of him then and how proud we are of him always!

Matan at the Western Wall

Matan at the Western Wall

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Moscow, Russia

Moscow was one of the places I visited that surprised me the most. I thought of it as a dark dour place and it was anything but that. I was amazed by the creativity and the art and here I will show you just a couple of examples.

We went to a number of synagogues while in Moscow and one of them was a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue. We passed this fence while walking toward the synagogue.

Fence in Moscow

For those coming from Shadow Shot Sunday, please consider taking my challenge Round the World with Rona

So what do people do with an old synagogue which was probably not used for more than 70 years until after the fall of the Soviet Union? Well, it could be refurbished, which this one was, both inside and outside, but suppose one wanted to update it, expand it, and yet preserve the facade? Well, here is the result:

Chabad Synagogue, Moscow

Chabad Synagogue, Moscow

As one walks toward the synagogue, this is what one views, a modern looking, concrete and glass structure. As one nears the entrance, this is what one sees.

Synagogue, Moscow

Yes, it is a glass wall that is in front of the old facade of the building. It provides additional space and insulation as well as an updated look.

And here is the original facade

Chabad synagogue, Moscow

Fortunately the synagogue is not only beautiful to visit, but it is thriving. While we visited there were groups of people praying in the main synagogue and the large, beautifully decorated chapel, and upstairs there is a snack bar and a roof garden and other recreational facilities. After years of suppression of religious worship, it is amazing to see what has happened. This is not the Russia I thought I would be seeing. It was a pleasant surprise!

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