Sunday, May 8, 2011

For Mother's Day: Remembering Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, Built for a Mom

For Mother's Day: Remembering Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, Built for a Mom
by Samuel Gruber

Today is Mother's Day in the United States, and because it is a holiday celebrating mothers, its naturally a sort of Jewish holiday, too. I got to thinking about in what formal ways Jews remember their mothers. Jewish comedians would have you believe that Jews never remember to call their mothers enough, nor can Jewish men ever hope to marry to the standards of their moms. Certainly American Jews practice a tough love with their moms - often publicly denigrating their mother's for their protective demands while craving their attention all the while.

When mothers die, their children say kaddish. In many synagogues, children have made remembered their mothers (and fathers) with donations of memorial windows and other furnishing and fittings. But there are few instances where devoted sons have built entire synagogues to their mother's memory, and even fewer that bear the mother's name.

One such famous instance is Ohel Leah in Hong Kong, built by Sir Jacob Sassoon in memory of his mother Leah. Sassoon also built Ohel Rachel in Shanghai in memory of his wife (a slightly more common practice).

I have never been to Hong Kong, and so have never seen the synagogue. I remember well, however, when it was nearly torn down in the late 1980s to make room for the new Jewish club of Hong Kong, which was to rise on the synagogue site after the historic building - one of the oldest in Hong Kong - was razed. There was talk of building a replica of the 1901-02 synagogue on the top of the new skyscraper.

Shortly after I began work as Director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund I began to collect information and write letters to help save the synagogue. At that time I think neither the name of WMF nor (certainly) my own made any difference, but over time the tide of local opinion in Hong Kong and among the Jews there shifted (or maybe it the leader of the demolition faction died) and a compromise design was settled upon.
Development rights to the synagogue gardens were sold to a property developer in 1995, and this funded the construction of a large new Jewish Community Center, which includes a library, supermarket, swimming pool and a strictly kosher restaurant and the restoration of the synagogue. The restoration, completed in 1998 and reported to cost $6 million returned Ohel Leah's interiors and exteriors to their original state.

I hope that Leah Sassoon was pleased. Happy Mother's Day!

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