Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue recently celebrated the dedication of a new Sefer Torah. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Lady Elaine Sacks joined Rabbi Asher Oser and Assistant Rabbi Ariel Zamir of Ohel Leah at the festivities. Also present were Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon of Chabad of Hong Kong, Rabbis Meir Azarzar and Avner Cohen from the Shuva Israel community, and the sofer, Rabbi Yehonatan Yitzhak-Halevy. Hundreds of members of the Hong Kong Jewish community participated as well.
While the unveiling of the new Torah was itself special, it was also deeply personal for many longstanding community members. It was dedicated in memory of five men (in Rabbi Sacks’s words, “one for each book”) – each of whom were deeply committed to the Ohel Leah community. All of these stalwarts – Ezekial Abraham, Edouard Esses, Cecil Ezra, David Sassoon and Karel Weiss – died without heirs; thus, this Torah represents their legacy. This was a most fitting way to pay homage to men who helped secure the community’s future.
These men’s stories are the community’s stories. Each came from diverse backgrounds and carried with them family histories and customs. For example, Cecil Ezra’s family was deeply tied to the Shanghai Jewish community, rising to great wealth and prominence before having to flee in the mid-1900s. Though forced to leave the family’s wealth behind in Shanghai, Ezra continued his family’s legacy by greatly contributing to the Jewish community.
Community members funded the writing of the Torah, and individual parshiyos were dedicated in memory of, as well as in honor of, their loved ones – linking past, present and future. Each contributing family was invited to help Yitzhak-Halevy, the sofer, complete the writing of the Torah. Children proudly held onto his arm while he completed writing the letters corresponding to the first letter of their names.
This Torah dedication was greatly significant to the sofer as well. Having previously served as the community’s mashgiach, carrying the Torah with him from Israel truly felt like he was bringing it home. In fact it was his close relationship with the aforementioned Esses that initially inspired the Torah dedication project.
In conjunction with the dedication ceremony, Hong Kong’s Jewish Historical Society displayed images from the photography collection of Karel Weiss, one of the posthumous honorees. His sepia images of old Hong Kong represented the Hong Kong that these men loved.
Michael Green, chairman of the Ohel Leah Synagogue Trust, said at the ceremony that ultimately all five of the honored men would have asked only that, “as a community we behave the way they would have liked us to behave.” He spoke of the inspiration these men provided in their own time and for the community’s future. For Green, having known these men personally, this dedication was particularly moving as he was able to offer his own insight into their lives.
Rabbi Sacks, the program keynoter and regarded by many in the Hong Kong Jewish community as their spiritual head, told the throng in the Garden Room of Hong Kong’s Jewish Community Centre, “No people have ever loved a book as we love this book.” He called the phrase “People of the Book” the ultimate understatement and reminded everyone that, “While we are the people who have carried the Torah with us … the Torah has actually carried us.”
The symbolism of placing this new Torah in the 110-year-old Ohel Leah Synagogue was a powerful statement of continuity. The ornate beauty of the case, in a Sephardi style reflective of the community’s roots, spoke to the reverence the community has for its heritage.
Following the ceremony and a celebratory meal, the group paraded the new scroll into its home in the synagogue’s aron kodesh. The crowd danced and sang outside the synagogue, undeterred by the Hong Kong heat and humidity.
“Our Sephardic Torahs are read upright, standing ready to honor those who come to give them honor. It’s as if the memory of these men, embodied in this Sefer Torah, are greeting us each time we enter the synagogue,” said Rabbi Oser of the Ohel Leah Synagogue.