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|The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong|
The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong (UJC) was formed in 1988 to advocate the cause of Reform, Liberal, Conservative, and other non-Orthodox Jews in Hong Kong. The congregation operated initially from the American Club. In their early days, services on Shabbat were followed by an Italian buffet on the 49th floor overlooking the harbour.
Although the absence of a reform or progressive shul was certainly noted in Hong Kong in the 1980's, the original impetus for the UJC's creation came when David Green,Â the son of long term Hong Kong residents, Bob and Grace GreenÂ could not become aÂ bar mitzvah. The rabbi at the orthodox synagogue would not recognise the reform conversion of David's mother.
The Greens, who had been members of Ohel Leah for 15 years, reached out to determine whether there were other Jews in Hong Kong who sought to explore the need for association and acceptance of Reform Judaism, and found, very soon, that there was a congregation out there in the making.Â There were, of course, concerns and disputes concerning the creation of this progressive congregation, with often voiced complaints that the Jewish community was being divided as a result.
The Jewish Community Centre (JCC),Â built in the early 1990â€™s, helped to remedy breaches. It became clear that members of all the Jewish congregations, by then the Jewish congregations in Hong Kong had expanded to include Chabad, Kehilat Zion and Shuva Israel,Â could come together to eat, of course, and to socialise and enjoy cultural and educational events, and just plain shmoozeÂ in the excellent and world class JCC facility that wasÂ created.
The UJCâ€™s first High Holiday service, in 1989, drew over 200 participants. This even included, most notably, Lord Lawrence Kadoorie,Â who was at that timeÂ the Chairman of the Incorporated Trustees of the Jewish Community of Hong Kong.Â
The congregation, founded on the principles ofÂ â€œwelcome the strangerâ€ and â€œbuild it and they will comeâ€,Â is now comparable in membership numbers with the orthodox congregation, with some 200 family unit members.
UJC membership is largely comprised of North Americans, but like the Jewish community of Hong Kong in general, it is extremely diverse, reflecting many traditions from around the world. Others members come from Israel, Great Britain, France, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and China. There are few nationalities not represented.Â The increasing number of Israeli families joining the congregation has added to its cultural depth.
Although some congregants have lived in Hong Kong for decades, many are in Hong Kong for only two to five years. Most of them were drawn to the Far East for business and professional opportunities, though there are journalists, teachers, and academics as well.
The UJC conducts Friday night Shabbat services, followed by a congregational ShabbatÂ dinner at the JCC.Â There is a Shabbat morning service on the last Shabbat of the month from the auditorium, which is a facility adjacent to the JCC.Â Festival services are also conducted at the auditorium. TheÂ High Holiday servicesÂ are held inÂ bigger rented premises, most recently Olympic House, because the number of people involved would soon overcrowd the available space in the auditorium.
In response to the large number of families with young children in the community, Shorashim, the congregational school, was founded. This Sunday school programme is designed for children between the ages of three through high school and strives to provide Progressive Jewish education and provide opportunities for participants to experience Jewish living in partnership with the entire congregation and community.
They believe that the most important aspect of the development of a Jewish way of life is when it involves the whole family and encourages parental involvement. The focus on family can be felt at a number of activities including family hikes, monthly â€˜tot shabbat programmes, and the tikkun olam outings.
The UJC stresses that religious education does not end with becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. High School students are given the opportunity to continue to be involved with learning as well. They serve as madrikhim (â€œguidesâ€ or teacherâ€™s aides) for the lower grades. It is a rewarding and popular program.
Although the UJC is dependent upon the fund raising activities of its own members to engage in many projects, the assistance of what became known as The Ohel Leah Synagogue Trust is invaluable. Office space is provided by the TrustÂ and also financial assistanceÂ which has enabledÂ the UJCÂ to attractÂ the past appointment ofÂ rabbis such asÂ Â Rabbi Samuel Joseph, Rabbi Howard Kosovske, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman,Â Rabbi Joel Oseran,Â Rabbi Jordan Cohen, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, and the much adoredÂ Rabbi Lee Diamond, who remains the UJC Rabbi Emeritis.
Currently, Rabbi David Kopstein serves as the rabbi of the congregation. Rabbi Kopstien arrived in Hong Kong in September from Australia where he and his wife both served as rabbis. The congregation is also fortunate enough to have a Cantorial soloist, Julie Howard. Julie contributes to the warmth and accessibility of the congregationâ€™s services.
The employment of Israeli professional staff over the last 6 years has had an important and beneficial impact on the congregation. Specifically, the employment of schlichot, through the Jewish Agency in Israel, has proven to be a really unitingÂ factor in the wider Jewish community. Jews in the diaspora are brought closer to Israel, spiritually, emotionally and alsoÂ physically. As a result, the UJC has now had a number of Israel tours, often bringing people to Israel who had never before visited there.
As, perhaps,Â with any congregation, the minhag and ritual of the UJCÂ is the subject of regular and challenging discussion to satisfy as many diverse spiritual demands as is possible without losing the core of Jewish faith. Those challenges are met by an energetic democratically elected executive committee, led by past presidents, Bob Green, Joshua Goldman-Brown and Mark Michelson, and by the current president Sharon Ser. The executive committee prides itself on maintaining the tradition of inclusiveness that the UJC was founded on.
The UJC supports its members in the full range of Jewish life-cycle events. Rabbinic counseling and conversion classes are available, and the rabbi is involved in interfaith activities and visits to Hong Kong schools to explain Judaism and its symbols, beliefs, and holidays.
Regular activities for adults include a monthly hiking group, an interfaith family dialogue group, adult Hebrew classes (basic and advanced), a variety of adult education classes, a Jewish book group, and monthly social events. Rosh Chodesh events are held for women on a monthly basis, providing a forum for exploration and discussion on a wide range of topics. There are also adult Chanukkah and Purim parties, and an annual fund-raising gala.
A tzedakah programme, overseen by the Tikkun Olam Committee, best characterises the spirit of this community. Members representing all facets of the community are united in common goals of raising money and awareness of issues and challenges facing Israel as well as the local community of Greater China. In China, for example, the Congregation provided substantial support to a development project in Shanghaiâ€™s Hongkou District, which housed over 20,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe in the 1940s.
The UJC has also provided support for Lifeline for the Aged, an organisation based in Israel that offers work opportunities, support services and intergenerational programmes for needy elderly and disabled in Jerusalem.
The UJC is the Jewish home away from home for its members and therefore provides not only all the services and programmes of a conventional congregation, but also meets many of the needs of extended family for those who are so far away from their own. Their all-inclusive sense of welcome and care is extended without exception, making the UJC the perfect fit for many of Hong Kongâ€™s progressive Jews.
The United Jewish Congregation
(Issue February 2007)Â