Rav Meir Ashkenazi was born in 1891 in Russia’s Pale of Settlement to a family of Lubavitcher chassidim. During World War I, Rav Meir and his family fled Russia and settled in Manchuria. In Harbin, Manchuria, Rav Ashkenazi married Toiba Liba, whose father had been his original teacher and mentor.
Rav Ashkenazi and his extended family eventually returned to Russia, to Vladivostok. In 1918, the community appointed him as their official rav. He served with great affection and dedication for seven years. However, by 1925, it was time to leave. The Bolshevik Revolution sought to eliminate all expressions of Judaism as Communism took over Russia. Rav Ashkenazi received an offer to lead an established community in New York and he and his wife were preparing for their journey to America when a registered letter arrived from the small Russian Jewish community in Shanghai. They were begging him to become their rav.
This was not an easy decision. America had everything: a growing Jewish community with shuls, schools, kosher food, etc. Yet, Rav Ashkenazi knew that the Shanghai community needed rabbinic guidance, so he changed his plans. Leaving Russia, however, was not easy; the rav was smuggled out. His wife and two young children would first leave five weeks later, also under difficult conditions.
The Ashkenazi family settled in Shanghai in 1926 and the rav began working to build up the existing Jewish community. There were two distinct groups: Sephardim who had come from Iraq and India as early as the 1850s, and the Russians, who arrived decades later, fleeing pogroms, and then later, the Bolsheviks. The rav was successful in forging strong ties with both groups and became the unifying bridge between them. Members of both communities treated him with great respect and came to him with their questions.
Rav Ashkenazi established the Ohel Moshe Shul in the Hongkew section of the city. It served as the center of religious and communal activities until the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, when the Japanese bombarded Hongkew. At that point, most of the community moved to the French Concession, also called “Frenchtown.” There, Rav Ashkenazi arranged for the building of the large “New Synagogue” in 1941.
As the Nazis gained power in Germany, German Jews began to emigrate. By 1939, 14,000 Jews had come to Shanghai from Germany and Austria. Although many were assimilated, the Ashkenazis welcomed them warmly and helped them settle in. The rav encouraged the wealthy members of the Russian and Sephardic communities to help these new refugees as well.
Under the auspices of the American Joint Distribution Committee, relief agencies were formed to raise money for housing and food. Communal refugee shelters were set up in which Rav Ashkenazi established religious services and kosher kitchen facilities. He would visit often and spend time speaking with the refugees. As a result, many began to participate, for the first time ever, in prayer services and attend Torah lectures.
Rav Ashkenazi established a bais din to deal with monetary disputes as well as marriages and divorces. He made sure to include representatives from all groups – Sephardim, German, Polish and Lithuanian. The bais din ensured that kosher provisions would be available, setting up stands in the Chinese and Japanese food markets with kosher poultry and meat.
In 1939, Rav Ashkenazi founded a Talmud Torah with 35 students. By 1941, it catered to 120 and eventually grew to accommodate 300 students. Its faculty arranged for special classes and activities for the children on Shabbos and Sundays, and provided food and clothing for the impoverished refugees.
The Talmud Torah was so successful that a more advanced school was needed for its graduates. The rav helped establish a full day Yeshiva Ketana, headed by his son-in-law, Rav Hershel Milner. The four staff members were students of the Mirrer Yeshiva. Eventually, the yeshiva had a student body of 40.
In addition, students of Frau Sarah Schenirer established a Bais Yaakov school. It would have a student body of over 100.
These schools were amazingly successful, but in the earlier years, there was no yeshiva for Rav Meir’s son Moshe. In 1934, with immense sacrifice, the Ashkenazis sent their only son to Eretz Yisrael. He was thirteen at the time, and it would be fourteen years before they saw him again.
August 1941 was a major turning point for the Shanghai Jewish community. Nearly 1,000 refugees from Poland and Eastern Europe arrived, via Kobe, Japan, including over 400 yeshiva students, more then 150 from the Mirrer Yeshiva alone. Rav Ashkenazi spent all his time arranging for their needs.
In addition, the rav headed a committee of Russian Jews who financed the first part of the printing of sefarim. The first volume printed was Gittin; 250 were printed in May 1942. This printing caused enormous public celebration in Shanghai. In fact, David Kranzler in his book, Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938-1945, quotes a Polish journalist who wrote, “One who did not witness the Amshinover Rebbe and yeshiva students dance at receiving this marvelous gift has never seen true Jewish joy and felt the secret of the Jew’s eternity.” In time, they printed close to 100 titles, including all of Shas, Chumash and commentaries and other halachic and ethical works.
Among the refugees were students from other Polish and Lithuanian yeshivas, including Kaminetz, Baranovich, Pinsk, Lublin, Kletsk and Lubavitch. The rav established a yeshiva for these young men, called “Yeshivas Mizrach ha’Rachok,” and served as their rosh yeshiva.
Feeding refugees was another huge challenge. Originally, the Sephardic and Russian Jews helped out. However, when Japan entered the war and occupied Shanghai in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor, all enemy nationals, including the wealthiest Sephardic Jews who held British citizenship, were interred in detainment camps, their bank accounts were frozen and their businesses taken over.
Primary support had always come from the American Joint Distribution Committee. In May 1942, shockingly, the JDC in NY declared it would no longer send money or communicate with its representative in Shanghai, in compliance with America’s Trading with the Enemy Act. Thus, the community’s main source of relief had been totally cut off.
Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz and other leaders of the Va’ad Hatzalah in America were successful in circumventing the law, and sent money to Shanghai via neutral countries. The Sternbuch family in Switzerland, Rav Shlomo Wolbe and Rav Avraham Yisrael Jacobson in Sweden, were instrumental in transferring the much-needed funds to Shanghai.
In 1944, mainly due to the efforts of Rav Kalmanowitz, the United States redefined its Trading with the Enemy Act and the JDC resumed its role in providing financial support to the refugees. Between 1942-1945, the funds were sent to Rav Ashkenazi and he assumed responsibility for distributing them, at great personal risk. He was interrogated by the Japanese several times, yet continued to endanger his life, knowing that he was saving the lives of hundreds of Torah scholars by receiving and distributing these sums of money.
Throughout this time, the Ashkenazi home was open to all. Shanghai was not always hospitable and the climate was difficult. Sanitary conditions were abysmal. Amoebic dysentery, typhoid fever, beriberi, cholera and other tropical diseases plagued the community. Rebbetzin Ashkenazi visited the ill, tending to their needs. She saved many from death, relying on her Creator to protect her from these highly contagious illnesses.
The Shanghai Jewish community acknowledged their beloved Rav and Rebbetzin with a meaningful tribute, including a beautifully crafted photo album to celebrate their 10th anniversary in Shanghai. This album, along with many other mementos of this remarkable and unusual Jewish community, is now on display at the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, located in Mill Basin, Brooklyn.
By 1949, thousands of refugees had left for other locations. Rav Meir Ashkenazi and his wife left as well. They sailed to New York and settled in Crown Heights where they were accorded much honor. The rav spent his final years learning Torah, serving Hashem with heart and soul until his passing, on the 26th of Av, August 25th, 1954. He is buried in the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.
Some of these details were taken from an essay written by Yisroel Shaw that appeared in “Library in a Book” (2004, Targum/Feldheim).