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Jewish leader revives Shanghai synagogue

Maurice Ohana worked with Chinese officials to host a wedding inside a historic synagogue.

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Candle lighting: Young Jewish children participate in a wedding at Ohel Rachel synagogue, the first wedding there in about 60 years.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

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A glass was smashed, and a cheer went up.

After months of careful negotiations with the Chinese government, Shanghai's Jewish community celebrated a revival last month as a historic synagogue opened for its first wedding in about 60 years.

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For decades, the practice of religion was discouraged, and places of worship were torn down or given secular uses, such as storage spaces for grain. But China's largest city is regaining its cosmopolitan reputation as the country continues its dramatic rise, and the Jewish community of foreigners now numbers more than 2,000.

Maurice Ohana, the president of the current community, still knew, however, it would be hard to get access to the Ohel Rachel synagogue for his daughter's wedding. Judaism isn't one of China's five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) because of the lack of native Jews, and the community worships quietly, in local apartments.

Ohel Rachel, built in 1920 by an earlier Jewish community of businessmen with roots in Iraq and India, remains in the hands of Shanghai's education ministry.

Almost all of its Jewish decorations have disappeared, except for a plaque outside the door, a star of David carved at the top of a dusty stairway, and a sign inside in Hebrew that says, "Be aware in front of whom you're standing."

Mr. Ohana, a Moroccan businessman, decided to ask local Chinese academic Pan Guang for help. Pan, the dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, began a months-long discussion with the government.

"We tried to explain the importance to the Jewish community," Mr. Pan said after the wedding.

With Pan's help, the Chinese government agreed to open Ohel Rachel for the wedding. The synagogue was full, with warm conversation in French, English, and Chinese. The consuls for Israel, the United States, France, and Argentina, as well as the Moroccan ambassador, took their places on the men's side of the aisle as young Chinese women in traditional red silk gowns passed out delicate head coverings for the women.

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Rabbis from Singapore and Beijing helped Rabbi Shalom Greenberg with the wedding.

"For us, being here tonight is a moving and very exciting event, and we hope we will have many more events in this place," the Israeli consul, Uri Gutman, said.

Ohana, the father of the bride, welcomed the guests. He looked at Pan in the audience and said, "We will never forget what you have done for us."