Hong Kong has long been established as a great port and financial center of world importance. From 1842 until June 30, 1997, it was a British crown colony. It is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China.
When it was ceded to Great Britain by China in 1842, many people in other British colonies, including the Sassoon family, began to look towards Hong Kong. The Sassoons, headquartered in Bombay, transferred their regional offices from neighbouring Canton to Hong Kong and helped develop this new port.
The Hong Kong Jewish Community was formally established in the 1850s, though the early community operated mainly in premises leased by the Sassoon family. The Jewish cemetery was dedicated in 1855. The Ohel Leah Synagogue, built by Sir Jacob Sassoon and his brothers, was opened in 1902. The Jewish population numbered 60 Sephardim in 1882; 100 in 1921, mainly Sephardim; 250 in 1954, half Sephardim and half Ashkenazim; 230 in all in 1959; and 200 in 1968, 70 Sephardim and 130 Ashkenazim.
From the 1960s on, Hong Kong’s development as a trade and finance centre attracted tens of thousands of foreigners, among them Jews from the US, Israel, the UK, Australia and Canada. They revitalized the local Jewish community. In 1997, 2,500 Jews were living in Hong Kong, two-thirds of them Americans and Israelis.
The Jewish community’s population, as of 2015, is estimated to be approximately 5,000 and is comprised of mainly expatriates originating from countries that include the UK, US, France, Australia, South Africa, Israel and Canada who worship in five congregations. In addition to Ohel Leah Synagogue, there is a reform congregation, the United Jewish Congregation, which was established in 1988 to serve Hong Kong’s Reform, Liberal and Conservative Jews. There are Chabad Houses on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon, and there is a Sephardi Orthodox congregation, Kehillat Zion, in Kowloon.
The Ohel Leah Synagogue complex also houses the community’s mikvah and the Jewish Community Centre (JCC), the epicenter of Jewish communal life in Hong Kong. The Centre was built in 1995 to replace the older Jewish Recreation Club, or JRC, as it was better known. As well as providing extensive communal programming that covers a spectrum of interests from recreational, athletic, academic and cultural, the JCC also boasts a Judaic library and Sino-Judaic archive with a full-time librarian; a meat restaurant; a dairy restaurant; large multipurpose function room, a kosher supermarket, an indoor swimming pool and gym.
In addition to the JCC’s two glatt kosher restaurants, Sabra Coffee Shop (meat) and Seven Zero (dairy), and full catering/banqueting services, kosher food is also available at Kehillat Zion’s Mul Hayam Restaurant in Kowloon.
Jewish life in Hong Kong includes a number of other organizations that further enrich the community experience. The Jewish Women’s Association of Hong Kong, initially established in the 1940s to provide aid to the Jewish refugees arriving from Shanghai, organises a number of cultural, social and educational programs as well as fundraising efforts aimed at aiding charitable organizations in Israel as well as the local Hong Kong community. The Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival provides annual programming with an eight-day festival drawing large audiences from within the community as well as the broader local Hong Kong community.
Connection to Israel
The Jewish community is strongly tied to Israel. In 1958, businessman Victor Zirinsky was appointed Israel’s Honorary Consul in Hong Kong. In 1985 Israel’s diplomatic presence was formally established with the appointment of a Consul General as the representative for both Hong Kong and Macau. Formal diplomatic relations were established between China and Israel in 1992. Today, in addition to Hong Kong, Israel also operates consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, and an embassy in Beijing.
The Israeli Consulate runs an Israeli Film Festival every three years and there are both youth and adult Maccabi football, basketball and netball teams. The community also actively participates in programming for and the support of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal (UIA). Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron are pivotal dates on the communal calendar and are marked by large scale events.
Founded in 1991, the Carmel School Association has quickly grown from a playgroup of a dozen children into one of Hong Kong’s leading international schools, providing the highest standard of Jewish and secular Education. It is, to date, East Asia’s only Jewish day school offering a secondary education program.
After several moves, the School is now based on three campuses. The Jewish Community Centre campus houses the pre-school children ages one to five. Also in the Mid-Levels area of Hong Kong, the Borrett Road Campus houses the Elementary school for US Grades Kindergarten through Grade Four. Elsa High School, is located Shau Kei Wan, on the east side of Hong Kong Island, and it serves the educational needs of children from US Grades 5-12.
The various Synagogues offer after-school Jewish education alternatives, including the UJC’s well established Shorashim program.
Listen to Douglas Kerr discussing the history and purpose of the synagogue with Rabbi Asher Oser and Erica Lyons on RTHK Radio 3’s The Big Idea.
Read “The role of Jews in the making of Hong Kong“, an article in the South China Morning Post on 14 December 2014.