Chinese government gives NSW politician rare permission to visit historic synagogue

May 2, 2016 by J-Wire Staff
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Deputy chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel and senior NSW Labor MP Walt Secord has visited the historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue in Shanghai.

Walt Secord inside the Oleh Rachel Synagogue

Walt Secord inside the Oleh Rachel Synagogue

It is one of the only two synagogues still standing in Shanghai out of an original of six – and is the largest synagogue in the Far East.

Secord was given rare permission by the Chinese government to visit the synagogue

Founded in 1920 and consecrated a year later, the Sephardi synagogue was effectively closed in 1948 and taken over by the Communists in 1949.

The Oleh Rachel Synagogue is closed to public, but it has been made available recently to the local expatriate Jewish population on a very limited basis on occasional high holidays.

In 1994, it was designated as a “protected architectural landmark of the city” and was recently put on the New York-based World Monuments Fund watch list. It is now located within a compound of Shanghai’ higher education administrative buildings.

Mr Secord, who is also NSW Deputy Opposition Labor leader in the NSW Parliament’s Legislative Council, Shadow Health Minister, Shadow Minister for the North Coast and Shadow Minister for the Arts said it was a beautiful and majestic building and he was delighted to get to visit the historic landmark.

“It was in surprising good shape and it must be maintained. It also gave a glimpse into the once-vibrant Jewish community that existed in China before Communist-rule.”

“It was extraordinary to walk off the bustling streets of Shanghai to find such a beautiful synagogue completely intact.”

“The view of the women’s gallery in the shule was spectacular.”

“I hope that the Chinese authorities continue to protect this important site.”

Mr Secord visited the Oleh Rachel Synagogue as part of a 14-day visit to China including Jewish sites of interest in World War II Shanghai.

Mr Secord said another highlight was an official tour of Jewish Shanghai by Haifa-born journalist, Dvir Bar-Gal – who lives there and is active in collecting and preserving Jewish gravestones. He has located more than 100 so far.

Mr Secord said Mr Bar-Gal made a genuine effort to educate and inform his visitors.

The tour included the Hongkou Jewish quarter – a square kilometre which was home to 23,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust; Huoshan Park where they gathered; the Ohel Moishe Synagogue which was restored in 2007; the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and former sites of the office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the childhood home to Michael Blumenthal, the Carter-administration official and US Treasury Secretary who lived there as a child refugee.

Mr Secord also visited the Nanjing Massacre museum in eastern China where he laid flowers at the memorial.  It commemorated the atrocities that began on December 13, 1937 when – Japanese troops captured Nanjing and over six weeks, they killed 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers who had laid down their arms – and raped 20,000 women.

The site was used to be one of the execution grounds and mass burial places.

In addition, he visited the water town of Tongli; city of Suzhou with its Buddhist temples; canals and Ming Tombs; Xi’an’s Muslim quarter and its ancient mosque set up in 742 AD during the Tang Dynasty – as well as Guilin and Yanshuo.

On previous trips, Mr Secord has visited the national genocide museum in Yerevan, Armenia; the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, World War II deportation sites in France; Jewish memorials in Berlin; Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the national genocide memorial in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Last year, Mr Secord also travelled to Germany to study the Holocaust and Spain to study the Moorish legacy, including the ancient Caliphate of Cordoba and the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims in the 1400s from Toledo and Cordoba.

In Berlin, he also wanted to see firsthand how Germany was handling the massive influx of Syrian refugees. On 29 September 2015, he witnessed the refugee crisis first-hand at Berlin’s largest refugee processing centre.

Mr Secord said he found that seeing things firsthand provides a great insight.

His study tours are structured around his key political, historical and cultural interests. While he described himself as nominally Christian, he said he was interested in other faiths and cultures, particularly those who have experienced genocide and State-sponsored atrocities – and how they influence cultural and political histories.

He also said he believed that his study tours assisted in developing better understanding of our local Australian communities like Sydney’s Chinese and Jewish communities.

Walt Secord paid for all accommodation and flights to China and there was no cost to the NSW taxpayer thanking Sydney’s Chinese consulate-general for the visit through the Asian and Oceania Affairs Division of Shanghai Municipal Foreign Affairs Office .


2 Responses to “Chinese government gives NSW politician rare permission to visit historic synagogue”
  1. Sue Grosman says:

    I visited the synagogue last year. A great place to visit

  2. Vernon Kronenberg says:

    The synagogue is open for the High Holidays; I was there for Yom Kippur a couple of years ago. The service was Sephardi and there were many French visitors.

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