Home to one Jew, Harbin Synagogue to be renovated

A new tourism scheme by the Chinese government sets its eyes — and its funds — on an area once home to 23,000 Jews including a former PM’s grandparents

Harbin's Main Synagogue today. (photo credit: Erica Lyons/Times of Israel)
Harbin's Main Synagogue today. (photo credit: Erica Lyons/Times of Israel)

HONG KONG — The Harbin Municipal Government has announced its decision to reconstruct and renovate the Harbin Main Synagogue. This is despite the fact that today there is but one Jew who calls Harbin home, Dan Ben-Canaan, a professor of research and writing methodology at Heilongjiang University, School of Western Studies who relocated there in 2002, long after Jewish communal life ceased to exist and the last Jewish resident had gone.

Harbin, China, today the capital of Heilongjiang Province, while perhaps best known for its Ice Festival, was once known as the “Moscow of the East.” At its height it was also home to over 23,000 Jews (including the grandparents of former prime minister Ehud Olmert) who created their own rich religious, cultural and educational life.

Remarkably today, even though the last Jewish family left Harbin in 1963 and Judaism isn’t a recognized religion in China, two historic synagogues (the Main/Old and the New Synagogues) as well as various other Jewish institutions, have physically, in some form, seem to have stood the test of time — without Jews.

The new planned renovation will restore the Main Synagogue to its original state. Completed in 1909, it is now also referred to as the “Old Synagogue” after the “New Synagogue” was built in 1921. It was damaged by a fire in 1931, and rebuilt shortly after, but without its previous grand entrance.

Recently the structure has housed a “zero-star” guesthouse, a coffee shop, small businesses and a preschool. The interior is dilapidated and no longer bears even the slightest resemblance to the house of worship it once was.

The announced renovation, to both the interior and the exterior of the Main Synagogue, also includes plans to renovate the adjacent Jewish Secondary School as well as two other buildings and a large square that together form an entire block in the heart of historical Harbin.

A postcard of Harbin's Old Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)
A postcard of Harbin’s Old Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)

With only one Jew remaining in an urban population of over ten million, this decision is still about numbers and dollars (Yuan) and the Harbin Municipal Government sees this as an investment. It has already invested over 80 million RMB for the project (some $13 million) and approximately 40 million RMB has already been allocated to relocate the Korean School which has been housed in the former Jewish Middle School, nearby residents as well as local businesses.

Ben-Canaan, appointed as a member of and advisor to the Old Jewish Synagogue Renovation Project of the Harbin City Command Leadership Team, stated, “I welcome the Harbin government plans and this project with great enthusiasm. The restoration, reconstruction and renovation of the synagogue and the other buildings, as well as the new large square between them, will recreate a very large Jewish block here and will reinforce the unique and important historical Jewish existence in Harbin and its contribution to the development of the city.”

An interior view of the Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)
An interior view of the Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)

This massive Harbin historic renovation plan of its Jewish section actually started in 2004 with the renovation and reconstruction by the Harbin Municipal Government of the New Synagogue, which was gutted and transformed into a museum of the Jewish history and culture of Harbin.

This is all now part of a larger plan.

As Ben-Canaan explains, “For the past several years the Harbin government has been looking for ways that will enhance the development of the city as a unique tourist destination.”

Government officials looked specifically at cities like Chengdu, where they successfully played upon their European architecture to develop a tourist attraction. Harbin, shaped by a unique heavily Russian-influenced history, is known for its characteristic Russian- and European-style construction.

Artist's rendering of the plan for the renovated Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)
Artist’s rendering of the plan for the renovated Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)

A walk through the city is talking a walk through its history, especially along Zhong Yang Dajie (Central Pedestrian Street) where the street has been transformed into an “outdoors architectural museum” complete with well informed, trilingual signage detailing the history of specific buildings, including their dates of construction and featuring architectural components and original use. Along the way it was discovered that an overwhelming number of the buildings in the initial city development scheme are evidence of Harbin’s strong Jewish past.

The newest phase of this plan to develop Harbin into an attraction for cultural heritage tourists is, however, facing a major obstacle: There is only a scintilla of information on the Main Synagogue’s pre-1931 design.

This lack of information, likely in part as a result of the 1931 fire, has made the search for the original construction and design blueprints thus far unsuccessful.

Additional view of the interior of Harbin's Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)
Additional view of the interior of Harbin’s Main Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy Dan Ben-Canaan)

There is a suspicion that some clues and information likely lay sealed in the Harbin Jewish Archives which were closed by the Chinese government in the 1980s and remain so today despite numerous efforts to open them. There are a handful of available existing photographs of the original exterior, but only two of the original interior.

Ben-Canaan, also the founder and Chair of the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center of at Heilongjiang University, stressed that at this juncture the successful collection of any available information is critical, including architectural drawings, pictures of the interior (of the different halls and communal rooms), diaries, letters, memorabilia or other relevant data.

In Harbin, a recent announcement of the special project committee made an appeal that, “people of all walks of life who have information and knowledge especially about Harbin Jewish life, would come forward and assist us in providing related drawings, pictures and other information of substance, to further perfect and enrich the historical fragment of the life of Jews in China, for the benefit of continued writing of the epic of Chinese and Jewish friendship.”

The team, including professional architects and historians and headed by Secretary General of the Harbin Government Mr. Liu Xing Ming, hopes their message will reach as many people as possible and lead them to the information they need.

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