'It’s going to be much easier to enjoy our great community'

Hong Kong gets an eruv, releasing its observant Jews from Shabbat confinement

The inauguration of the symbolic area in which Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath upgrades the weekend routine of dozens of observant community members, as well as visitors

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Seth Fischer climbs up to The Peak in Hong Kong, May 2023. (Courtesy Seth Fischer)
Seth Fischer climbs up to The Peak in Hong Kong, May 2023. (Courtesy Seth Fischer)

Summer weekends can be a good time to visit what locals in Hong Kong call The Peak: a mountaintop park that offers both a dazzling view of the Chinese city’s hustle and bustle and some relief from the tropical heat that engulfs it for six months a year.

Yet for several dozen observant Jews living in Hong Kong, the park and the entire city had been effectively out of bounds for much of the weekend due to the lack of an eruv — a predefined area in which Jews may carry objects on Shabbat and holidays.

In the absence of an eruv, observant Jews may walk around but may not carry anything, up to and including reading glasses. For families with babies and others, the result is a de facto house arrest from Friday to Saturday night.

But this changed earlier this year in Hong Kong, a city that is home to some 3,000 Jews, thanks to a report commissioned by the local Jewish community that declares and defines an eruv, which a local rabbi says is the easternmost in the world.

“The new eruv may not affect the lives of many people, but it makes a huge difference to those who are affected,” said Seth Fischer, an Orthodox Jew who has been living in Hong Kong since 2004.

Before the eruv was announced, he had refrained from climbing to The Peak on Shabbat because he couldn’t bring a bottle of water, “and that’s a problem when it’s so hot,” he told The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Asher C. Oser attends a communal event at the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, China on March 3, 2023. (Courtesy of Oser)

A New York-born 51-year-old father of four, Fischer is one of about 80 locals whose lives were severely limited on Shabbat due to the lack of an eruv, he said.

“It meant no walks with the kids on Shabbat, not being able to bring a bottle of wine to a Friday night dinner, not being able to bring over dinner to a sick neighbor,” he said.

“The new eruv has changed the nature of Shabbat for us,” added Fischer, whose job in finance brought him to Hong Kong.

In addition to the locals, the new eruv will change weekends for Jewish observant visitors to Hong Kong, said Rabbi Asher C. Oser of Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue.

Members of the Jewish community of Hong Kong attend a celebration on the 120th anniversary of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, China on March 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Ohel Leah Synagogue)

An eruv is a symbolic boundary that, according to halacha — traditional Judaism’s rulebook — turns a public space into an enclosed, private area. To establish an eruv, the area must have the characteristics of a private domain. This can be achieved in multiple ways, including having the community lease parts of it and demonstrating it can be closed off, depending on the circumstances.

In an urban setting, making a new eruv can therefore be a time-consuming and sometimes expensive business, because it can require physical arrangements – and the permits that enable them. In Amsterdam, the inauguration of a new eruv 15 years ago cost more than $30,000 and months of work, which included installing foldable barriers across some traffic arteries. (The barriers are never deployed, but remain stowed away in on-site metal boxes, to which the community has the key and which it installed with permits from the municipality.)

A map shows the boundaries of the eruv inaugurated in Hong Kong, China in March 2023. (Courtesy of Ohelm Leah Synagogue)

Because of its topography, Hong Kong naturally has an eruv, Oser told The Times of Israel.

“We didn’t need to do any work on the ground,” he said.

The new eruv encompasses most major hotels, the Ohel Leah Synagogue and adjacent Jewish community center, as well as the building where Chabad is located.

Rabbi Oser invited Rabbi Avner Cohen of Jerusalem and Moscow — where Cohen had helped establish an eruv — to spend a week in Hong Kong and see whether it was feasible to make one there, too.

Cohen wrote a halachic essay asserting the feasibility. Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon of Chabad of China secured the endorsements of rabbis from Sydney, New York, and Budapest, giving the eruv international legitimacy.

The facade of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, China, pictured here on March 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Ohel Leah Synagogue)

Curves in all the major roads inside the eruv helped create it, as did the fact that it’s on an island that is attached to the mainland by tunnels instead of bridges, Oser said.

Still, the new eruv only covers the northwestern part of the island of Hong Kong, which comprises the leafy southern half of the city with its many residential buildings. The northern and industrialized half of the city, which is on the mainland across from the island’s shore, is outside the eruv, as is most of the island.

The tropical wood furniture is a cherished feature of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong, China, pictured here on March 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Ohel Leah Synagogue)

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, several hundred of the city’s Jews left, Fischer said.

But Hong Kong still has one of the Far East’s most vibrant Jewish communities, with a full-time rabbi and a rabbi’s assistant, Jewish education institutions from kindergarten to high school, “and a steady stream of lectures by very interesting Jewish people visiting town,” Fischer said.

The new eruv means “it’s going to be much easier to enjoy our great community going forward,” he added.

Most Popular
read more: