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Far East of Eden

15 July, 2013

A collaboration of efforts to explore Jewish identity in China brings together young Jews of many backgrounds.




The Jewish leadership and Asian worlds collided at Destination Shanghai, where Jews from India, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Turkey, Austria, Israel, the UK, the US and, of course, China, converged to explore Jewish identity with a Chinese twist.

Destination Shanghai included Limmud Shanghai, a cross-communal Shabbaton for predominantly Asia based young Jewish professionals, and a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration marking the 70th anniversary of the Shanghai ghetto.

The collaboration between the Joint Distribution Committee, Limmud and the Schusterman Philanthropic Network took place over four days in April. As co-chair of the JDC Entwine trip, I was one of 17 young Jewish leaders from America, Israel and the UK, in China to learn about a completely different Jewish community.

Having been on a JDC mission to Haiti, I was determined to find out about its work in China.

After Destination Shanghai, we spent another four days meeting Jewish leaders in Shanghai and Beijing, and heard from Kehillat Beijing, Moishe House, Chabad, entrepreneurs and the Hong Kong JCC. We learned about the nuances of being Jewish in China; specifically creating communities where all are expats and transient, and also taking into account that the Chinese offer “freedom of religion” to only five religions – and Judaism is not one of them.

Indeed, the organizers of the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration told us that they only received government permission to use the Ohel Rachel Synagogue a couple of weeks before the service, leaving very little time to pull the event together. I found it hard to get my head around the state owning religious buildings such as the synagogue, which is now part of the government’s Department of Education.

The Jewish community gets permission to use it on Rosh Hashanah and one day of Hanukkah.




There are an estimated 20,000 Jews throughout the Far East, including many expats and those from indigenous Jewish communities. In China, there are about 5,000 Jews on the mainland and 4,000+ in Hong Kong. Where in the early 20th century Shanghai had three coexisting Jewish communities – Baghdadi Jews from India, Russian merchants escaping pogroms and some 25,000 Holocaust refugees (most famously including the Mir Yeshiva) – today a few hundred Jews live there. Like many other Asian cities, Shanghai is a temporary home to many Jews of disparate nationalities with different beliefs and perspectives. Remarkably, the program reflected this diversity.

“What distinguishes the Chinese Jewish community is its being a mostly transient community comprised of expats,” trip co-chair Rachel Greenberg put it. “It is a very different melting pot from the Shanghai Jewish community to the New York one, and it was strange for there to be so few Chinese people attending.”

We witnessed a distinct Jewish fluidity – a valuable collaboration among all of the denominations, be it Chabad or liberal, newly minted college grads or established executives – among various leaders and members who were a part of the same community conversation.

Stacy Palestrant embodies this spirit.

She was one of the founders of Kehillat Beijing, the liberal, peer-led, innovative Jewish community in Beijing, and sends her children to a Chabad school. Every month she ensures that her family attends liberal and Chabad services and hosts travelers from any background.

“Our communities have tremendous potential to grow and develop with Jewish families and individuals moving to Asia in increasing numbers,” Palestrant said. “The challenge, however, is how do we create community when we all come from such different Jewish backgrounds and orientations.”

Working and interacting so positively is something that we are still striving for in London.

“Destination Shanghai, like other immersive experiences, brought together young Jews from all around the world and catalyzed Jewish connectivity and a sense of purpose,” said Sarah Eisenman, JDC Entwine executive director. “These kinds of powerful global experiences are built through a network of invaluable partnerships with the Schusterman network and Pears Foundation.”

After a fascinating Limmud, the JDC group joined local Jewish leaders to celebrate Shabbat in a downtown hotel. Some participants attended the liberal prayer service, while others went to Chabad. Melissa Lax, meanwhile, led us on a walking tour around Jewish Shanghai. A young Jewish business development and marketing consultant, Lax shared her insights on living and working in China. Being able to meet people like her and others at Beijing Moishe House provided a great opportunity to branch out.

Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, encouraged us to use our new connections to innovate within our own communities. He challenged us to “continue to network globally, learn strengths from other communities and apply them in your own.” I applied this idea the next day, while brainstorming with three Mumbai Jews on how to bring Limmud to their community.

The 70th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai was held in the Shanghai Refugee Museum.

The day-long program included the incredible story of JDC hero Laura Margolis, who organized emergency relief for up to 10,000 Jews in Shanghai in 1941; a Yiddish theater performance by Zalman and Avram Mlotek; a talk about Jewish unity and community building by Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the JDC; and a tour of the Jewish refugee museum and the former Shanghai ghetto.

I was surprised to learn that the Chinese government commissioned the Holocaust exhibition to educate youngsters, as the subject is currently not on the national curriculum.

Twenty thousand Jews were crowded into the Shanghai ghetto’s one square mile during the second half of World War II. The many remnants show what life was like there, including restored Jewish shopfronts. The original buildings that housed the Jewish theater and primary school still survive with clues as to what they were used for, with photos making up an exhibit in the museum itself. Despite the cramped conditions and curfews, the Jews interacted frequently with the local residents, who refused to call it a ghetto – it was known as the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees.”

“JDC is incredibly proud of the authentic, local expressions of Jewish life showcased at Destination Shanghai, and remains dedicated to ensuring that future gatherings and other regional programs maximize the thrilling talents of Jews in Asia and their peers around the globe,” summarized Judy Amit, regional director of JDC programs in Africa/Asia. “Undoubtedly, emerging Jewish life in this part of the world is fueled by past successes, unbridled passion, and the promise of new and innovative approaches being offered by community members of every generation.”


                                                                                                By Permission of the Jerusalem Post

                                                                                                                                Jerusalem Post Magazine - 6 June 2013