A delegation of Chinese officials and international diplomats will join Shanghai’s Jewish community in celebrating the reopening of the historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue.

An imposing structure, Ohel Rachel was built in 1920 to accommodate a large contingent of Baghdadi Jews that had settled in the port city since the 1870s. Today, locals look to the synagogue, which once served as a home to 30 Torah scrolls, as one of the most significant symbols of Shanghai’s colorful Jewish history.

In recent years, Shanghai’s education ministry - which has offices in the synagogue - would allow services to take place a few times a year. But according to Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch run Shanghai Jewish Center, government approval has ensured continued communal use of the building through at least the summer in honor of the 2010 World Expo.

“We all wish to extend our appreciation to the Chinese government for this tremendous gesture,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg and Maurice Ohana – the Jewish community president whose daughter got married at the synagogue in 2008, the community’s first kosher wedding in six decades – will preside over the Friday afternoon ceremony. A two-week long renovation project that just concluded in time for the ceremony was covered by the community.

According to Greenberg, when it was built, Shanghai’s Jewish community numbered in the thousands, but when most of the community left in the 1950s, control of the building reverted to the government. The government’s decision allows for Friday evening and Saturday morning Sabbath services to take place at the synagogue.

Since 1999, the contemporary community – comprised primarily of international expatriates – has celebrated Jewish holidays several times a year at Ohel Rachel. A year before, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the synagogue to promote awareness of the landmark and its history.

“It is truly special that this beautiful synagogue will be in regular use after having been idle for so long,” said Greenberg. “That we will be using it during the Expo is monumental.”

Expo Fever

Earlier this week, Expo fever took the city by storm as participating country’s pavilions welcomed their first visitors to much fanfare and excitement. Israel’s pavilion, which was inaugurated by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, was the Expo’s first to officially open.

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mendy Alevsky, who arrived last month with his wife Sara to help the Jewish Center deal with the onslaught of patrons in need of kosher food and other services, said that the city is bounding with energy.

“Everyone is excited,” he said. “You can’t walk anywhere without hearing people talk about the Expo, or seeing signs about the Expo. There’s even special taxis designed specifically for the Expo.”

With a theme of “Better City, Better Life,” Shanghai’s gala event counts more than 190 countries and 50 international organizations as participants. It’s expected to bring some 100 foreign leaders and millions of visitors to the city through Oct. 31.